Metro Silicon Valley

Viva La Resistance Diet

Even before Bush won Florida, I felt sick to my stomach. On election night, my wife and I had Indian food delivered to herald the end of four years of darkness, but the food just didn't sit right. My 3-week-old son felt sick, too. He had painful gas and wailed for hours. I blamed Bush.

Once the reality of Kerry's defeat set in, I reached for the Tums. By Wednesday, the realization that we were in for four more years of reckless incompetence and messianic militarism snuffed out my appetite like Bush snuffed out critical thought in the White House.

If you're like me, you're growing weary of the election post-mortems and the what-the-hell-do-we-do-now hand wringing. All the analysis adds up to one thing: We're fucked. The damage the Bush administration will continue to inflict on international relations, the environment, abortion rights, civil rights and good-hearted people everywhere is depressing.

On Wednesday, I felt tempted to resign myself to Republican omnipotence. Resistance seemed futile. Karl Rove's armies of fear and ignorance delivered a crushing defeat to the forces of reason and tolerance. But then I started thinking. Succumbing to the Bush administration's radical agenda would only embolden them. Screw that.

Fighting the Bush administration is an uphill battle, but it's already begun. It's important to stay engaged and prepare for the battles to come. Toward that end, I'm advocating the Resistance Diet. Coupled with regular voting and exercise of your First Amendment rights, you can help the nation lose the ugly fat that clogs the White House by wisely choosing what you eat.

The Resistance Diet is predicated on the notion that eating is a political act. It goes like this. Eat locally grown food. Seek out organically produced foods and produce. Avoid corporate agriculture.

Eating locally grown food is remarkably easy. While the Bush administration's ag policy has abandoned small family farms in favor of multinational corporations like Conagra and Cargill, shopping at farmers markets helps keep growers afloat and counters the effects of a globalized, import-dependent, subsidy-addicted food economy. Plus, local food has less distance to travel, which means it requires less fuel to get to you. Reducing our oil dependence is another way to subvert the Bush agenda.

Organically and sustainably produced foods are free of petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, products made by Bush-loving corporations like Dow and Monsanto. Buying these foods also expresses your concern about impacts on water quality, global warming and wildlife diversity, sentiments absent in the Bush camp. And by avoiding food produced by corporate giants like Phillip Morris and ADM, you're taking a stand against the monopolistic industrialization that has taken oven our food supply.

Individually, the Resistance Diet is a small act. but it identifies your stance against the powers that be. Collectively, it can chip away at the cruel wall Bush has erected across the globe. And it will make you healthy and strong and ready to keeping fighting for what's right.

A Personal Fog of War

For the past quarter century, Errol Morris has been one of America's most intriguing, innovative and, well, quite frankly, quirky documentary filmmakers. He is to nonfiction cinema what David Lynch is to fiction film and Diane Arbus is to documentary photography. With his offbeat character studies, unconventional camera angles and haunting musical scores by Philip Glass, Morris has forged one of the more unique and irreverent voices in American cinema, documentary or otherwise.

His collected oeuvre -- beginning with his iconoclastic look at pet cemeteries, "Gates of Heaven" (1978), to his spellbinding murder thriller, "The Thin Blue Line" (1988), and his unforgettable "Mr. Death" (1999), a chilling profile of a gas chamber engineer and Holocaust denier -- has forced Americans to plunge beneath the veneer of postmodern consumerism and confront their internal demons.

While 'The Thin Blue" Line directly resulted in the overturning of a first-degree murder conviction and, in and of itself, became a cultural cause célèbre, Morris' new film, "The Fog of War," takes the filmmaker into decidedly new and, what is for him, uncharted territory -- a subject as large as the history of human conflict in the 20th century and the life of one of the era's most controversial and reviled figures, Robert McNamara.

In his previous works, Morris had the luxury of introducing his audiences to stories and subjects mostly unknown to them, and as such, the films were marvelously revelatory and widely celebrated.

For those of us in our mid-40s and older, however, Robert McNamara needs no introduction. His image is indelibly etched in our collective consciousness.
As the secretary of defense under both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, McNamara was a larger-than-life figure, one of the so-called "best and the brightest" of the New Frontier. With his dark, slicked-back hair and wire-rim glasses, McNamara was one of the most recognizable figures on the nightly news for virtually all of the tumultuous '60s.

The antiwar movement in the United States, in which Morris says he participated as a student at the University of Wisconsin, thoroughly despised McNamara, his public arrogance and condescension, his seemingly emotional indifference to the horrors of Vietnam and the American assault he crafted and oversaw there. He was a numbers cruncher, an accountant with an army, dispassionate, interminably full of himself. Mac the Knife. Ice water seemed to run through his veins.

In his monumental history of the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam wrote of McNamara:

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Unsafe Asylum

Late last year, Shahbaz Taheri, editor of the San Jose-based Iranian-American magazine Pezhvak, learned a lesson about the United States government. When the Immigration and Naturalization Services Agency contacted him as part of its homeland security campaign to publicize a new program requiring male immigrants from selected, predominantly Muslim countries to register with the federal government, Taheri was happy to oblige them.

After all, it was in the post-9/11 spirit of halting terrorism, and so he agreed to print--as a public service-- the registration information in his magazine, not knowing that the program would result in the detention and deportation of several hundred Muslim immigrants for minor immigrant-status violations.

In fact, as the national news media relate stories of Pakistani immigrants seeking safe haven in Canada, the ill-fated policy has arguably resulted in perhaps the first post-World War II instance of ethnic groups fleeing the United States in droves to find refuge elsewhere, an ironic reversal of the country's traditional role as the destination for immigrants to avoid intimidation and persecution from unfriendly governments.

The special registrations have predictably resulted in a public outcry from immigration attorneys and advocates, who cite the selective enforcement (only certain Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries are targeted) as patently unfair.

"Many people are going to get deported who have pending petitions [for green cards]," remarks one exasperated immigration attorney. "If that was the case [uniformly], then guess what? Then they have to get rid of half the Mexicans who are here because they have pending petitions and they are waiting for their green cards. Are they really going to do that? I mean, I doubt it ... that will be political suicide."

And so, when Taheri, in good faith, translated the INS information into Farsi and published it in his magazine, the blowback, after the mass detention of Iranians nationwide (Iranians were among the first required to register), caused Taheri to rethink the value of voluntarily cooperating with the federal government. Some readers of Pezhvak, which means "echo" in Farsi, would go as far as to accuse him of being a government agent.

Today, almost three months later, the lesson is being relearned. Indeed, Taheri has helped uncover a quiet round of "consular interviews" of Iranians facing final deportation orders conducted in Arizona and Louisiana in recent months.

While Citizenship officials from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Enforcement (BCIE, formerly part of the now-defunct INS) refused to comment, some Iranian-American attorneys say they have evidence the interviews were conducted by officials representing the Islamic Republic of Iran, a startling turnabout because the United States doesn't have diplomatic relations with Iran (it was named as one of the three countries in President George W. Bush's "axis of evil") and consular interviews are by definition a voluntary process where immigrants are given access to an advocate from their native country, a situation that loses all merit when detainees have fled their native country because of oppression.

Most of those interviewed, immigration attorneys say, don't possess Iranian passports and are likely individuals who came to the United States with the sole aim of fleeing the Iranian government.

In an email circulating in an immigration-attorneys group, one attorney wrote of the consular interviews: "It is akin to the Gestapo interviewing Jews in wartime Europe to facilitate their return to Germany for persecution."

Collect Calling

One of the people rounded up by the government after 9/11 and taken for a "consular interview" was Kouroshe Gholamshahi, a security guard from Sacramento with no criminal record, who was arrested at his home by the INS.

Before that, for the past 17 years, Gholamshahi had been residing in the United States--illegally. An Iranian of Baha'i faith who apparently feared religious persecution in his homeland, he had applied for political asylum in the United States but was rejected (his case was tried by a law student at UC-Davis) and instructed to leave the country voluntarily.

Instead, Gholamshahi opted to duck the law and remain in the United States--a move that was not considered especially risky in the past. He married an American almost five years ago and appeared perhaps on his way toward citizenship (though, because of his deportation order, the matter was complicated) before everything changed after Sept. 11.

Shahbaz Taheri became acquainted with this detainee four months ago, when a jailed and depressed Gholamshahi wrote to his magazine requesting that he send him copies to read. Soon, Gholamshahi began regularly calling Taheri collect from jail. "I'm paying almost $60 every month for the collect calls," says Taheri, who found himself almost involuntarily involved in Gholamshahi's case. As their relationship grew, Taheri alerted private Iranian-American immigration attorneys to what seemed to him as a case of needless detention.

Gholamshahi, Taheri knew, was terrified of being deported to Iran for fear of what would happen to him there. "And each time he calls," Taheri continues, "he wants some kind of assurance through me that something good is going to happen to him, and he keeps asking me, 'Mr. Taheri, what do you think? Do you think I'm going to get out of jail? And what's going to happen to me?'"

Then, about a month ago, Gholamshahi abruptly disappeared from the Sacramento County Jail. His court-appointed federal defender confirmed that the INS, without explanation, had transferred Gholamshahi to its detention facility in Florence, Ariz. When, after a period of silence, Gholamshahi was finally able to make a phone call, he contacted Taheri from Florence and told him that 40 to 50 other Iranians, all on final deportation orders, had been rounded up in the facility and had been interviewed by Iranian officials for the issuance of travel documents back to Iran.

Internet Connected

Needless to say, magazine editor Taheri was amazed. An Iranian dissident himself, who, in Iran, was active in student politics, he had left the country during the time of the Shah and had earned American citizenship and is well aware of the tumultuous relationship between the two nations.

Not believing it was possible that the United States would offer the Iranian government unfettered access to detainees facing deportation back to Iran, he immediately contacted Babak Sotoodeh, president of the Los Angeles-based Alliance of Iranian-Americans. Sotoodeh, upon hearing the news, fired off an email to a lawyers listserve that had been started specifically to deal with INS special registrations.

"I sent an email to our lawyers group," Sotoodeh relates, "saying this is what's going on. It's very strange; has anybody heard a similar thing? And then I got a response that, yes, our people have been removed to Florence too, and they talked to us and said the same thing. So this is how we stumbled upon it."

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away in Dallas, Texas, immigration attorney Karen Pennington was facing a similar situation. Her client, who requests anonymity for this story because he fears for his life both in the United States and in Iran, was transferred from a county jail in the Midwest to an INS detention facility in Oakdale, La. There, Pennington says, he was only allowed to speak on the telephone with family members twice for two minutes each time.

Pennington learned that her client was being interviewed by officials from Iran for the issuance of travel documents. Horrified, Pennington immediately filed for a Temporary Restraining Order (which was later denied by a federal judge in Dallas), posted a message on an immigration-lawyers listserve and contacted the INS.

The INS, she says, told her they were anticipating chartering a flight out to deport 50 to 75 Iranians. Further, she contends, during the TRO hearing in Dallas, Paul Hunker, the federal prosecutor representing the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship, informed the judge that her client had been interviewed by Iranian officials.

'Get Rid of These People'

Back in California, Babak Sotoodeh, like Karen Pennington in Dallas, also decided to contact the federal government. He had verified to his satisfaction that interviews by Iranian officials had taken place in Arizona and Louisiana through responses he got from his lawyers groups (for instance, San Diego federal defender Jason Ser also says he had seven Iranian clients transferred to Florence) and through other measures--he had contacted the Florence Project, an immigration-rights organization in Arizona, whose lawyers, after conducting interviews with guards at the Florence detention facility, confirmed for Sotoodeh that the facility was holding Iranian detainees "from all over."

An attorney at the Florence Project says that Sotoodeh did indeed contact them, and the organization reported back that about 50 Iranians facing final deportation orders had been gathered in Florence to undergo consular interviews with Iranian officials.

Concerned, Sotoodeh placed a call to the Iranian desk of the State Department. "The guy right off the bat said, yeah, this is happening," Sotoodeh relates. "I said how can this be happening? He said, well, because INS wants to get rid of these people." Another call to Detention and Enforcement official Lisa Hoechst confirmed to Sotoodeh that the interviews were being conducted by Iranian officials.

The BCIE refused to confirm that the interviews took place.

Forced Interviews

Consular interviews, says an official from the Office of Foreign Missions, are interviews conducted by officers who have the right to visit detention centers in the prisons of the countries they operate in. The catch, though, says the official, is that consular interviews are supposed to be strictly voluntary--if the detainee does not want to speak with the consular official, no coercion is permitted (although the consular official does have the right to verify the noninterest directly from the detainee to ensure the host country itself has not coerced the detainee into the decision).

"That's a consular interview," says a frustrated Sotoodeh. "The counsel comes for my benefit to get me out of jail. Not the counsel shows up to make sure he knows that I've filed for political asylum so that he can write it down and send the information to Iran and make sure that he gets passports to me so I'm deported to Iran and put in jail or die or something. ... These are not consular interviews."

Meanwhile, from the Yuba County Jail in Yuba City, Kouroshe Gholamshahi paints a quite different picture of the consular interview he received than does the official from the Office Foreign Missions. Most importantly, Gholamshahi, who was transferred back to California after the interviews, says a BCIE official had informed the Iranian detainees in Florence that if they didn't meet with the Iranian officials, they would face criminal charges.

Gholamshahi says the Iranian official met with him for about three minutes, asked him questions about his family in Iran and his wife in the United States. Then, after examining his file, the official told him that he didn't know why the BCIE had brought Gholamshahi to him again; he had already rejected Gholamshahi's entrance to Iran three months earlier. Indeed, two other detainees, represented by San Diego federal defender Jason Ser, have already received letters from the Iranian Interest Section saying that the request for travel documents was denied.

"So how come these guys are going through these gymnastics to deport them?" Sotoodeh asks. "The reason is that these guys are political asylum seekers. These are the guys that ran away from Iran without anything. Many of them don't even have a passport. Unfortunately for the U.S. government, if they don't have a passport, they can't deport them to Iran, OK? So, some guy in the State Department or the INS came up with this brilliant idea: Well, how about you contact the Iranian people and make sure they can give them the passport? Now we have a passport; now we can deport them. That's what they're doing."

And in the end, Sotoodeh may very well have the right to be concerned. Although the BCIE isn't breaking any rules, the quiet cooperation between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran raises more than a few eyebrows in the Iranian-American community (though some speculate the operation could be an intelligence-gathering attempt by American agents posing as Iranian officials--the BCIE refuses to comment).

Just last May, Amnesty International called for urgent action after publicizing two cases of Iranian asylum seekers deported from Australia. Both cases served lengthy immigration detention in Australia and, when they finally agreed to return to Iran, faced legal charges for criticizing the government. Another man, Amnesty International reports, was forcibly deported and, once in Iran, was executed.

"I'm assuming many people are here because they can't be back in their country," says Faith Nouri, an Iranian-American immigration attorney who also chairs the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System committee of the Los Angeles Bar Association. "We have a very tumultuous history and there is just no question that [Iran] has gone through a lot of changes since revolution, and it is not the same country. Right now in Iran there is no freedom so the government in fact is controlling, is mandating, the behavior for the whole country, for the population. And the people are mandated to behave in a certain way and [those that don't] are going to be basically prosecuted."

Always Bet on Yellow

"Dae han min kuk!" (clap clap, clapclapclap)

"Dae han min kuk!" (clap clap, clapclapclap)

For all I know, I could be chanting down the Spanish government. Betty, my Korean-American wife, doesn't know what the chant means either. But up on the flat-screen TV, 45,000 soccer-mad Koreans are chanting "Dae han min kuk" and cheering on the South Korean soccer team with lusty passion. The 300 or so red-clad soccer fans watching the South Korea-Spain World Cup quarterfinal game on the flat screen of this Korean market are doing it, too. Pretty soon, I've picked up the chant and am losing my voice.

I can't believe I'm here -- at 11:30pm on a Friday night in June -- but at the same time, I can't imagine being anywhere else. Korea is the first Asian team to make it this far in the World Cup. They have been playing amazing ball, knocking off tournament heavies Portugal, Poland and Italy. All of us are hoping the heart attack kids pull off another miracle. And with the support of crimson-clad "Red Devils" supporters, the soccer team has galvanized the Korean-American community while captivating the Asian American community and the soccer world.

When South Korea finally bests Spain in penalty kicks around 1:30am, the crowd erupts in hugs and tears and screams. Tumbling outside, the cars toot away, spinning exultant victory laps, their occupants waving red shirts and Korean flags. The next day, I ask my mother-in-law what "dae han min kuk" means and she replies, "Republic of Korea."

That was early in the summer, when the Korean soccer team had an amazing run -- finishing fourth after bowing out to Turkey. That was when I first noticed that a lot of my friends -- and most of the Asian American ones -- were suddenly down with soccer, staying up late to watch the games, rooting in supermarkets and driving like idiots. During the whole World Cup, I had rooted for the United States, but drew the line against the Asian teams. Even though, as soccer-playing kids, we sucked down oranges at halftime side by side with American teammates, I felt pride watching our yellow brothers excel on the world stage.

The fact is, I felt a deeper kinship with the Asian players. They resemble me -- crazy Ahn Jung-Hwan perms notwithstanding. They probably take off their shoes when they enter a home and have rice cookers on their kitchen shelves. They make the same faces I do when I screw up on the field. Am I a bad American because I feel more in common with the Asian players and root for Asian teams?

Yao Ming Dynasty

The question is fresh on my mind, especially since the United States and the Chinese national basketball teams are set to play against each other this Thursday, Aug. 22. It's the American debut of Chinese national and 2002 NBA No. 1 draft pick, the 7-foot-6-inch center from Shanghai, Yao Ming. Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown remarked about Ming, "In four years he could be one of the best players in the world."

Ben Kim is a writer, sports nut and co-founder of the Foundation of Asian American Independent Media (FAAIM). He says international sport is the one arena where it feels OK for an Asian American to root for his country of ancestry. "It has to do with America's place in the world and one's place in America," he says. "Against the backdrop of American global hegemony, everyone else is an underdog even in sports not dominated by the U.S., and it's fun to root for the underdog. And in other realms of international competition -- politics, trade, what have you -- anyone's gain at America's expense isn't something you want to root for."

Kim hints at a political undercurrent lurking in the stands and it's true. A victory against the United States is seen as payback for years of cultural and militaristic superiority. When Apolo Anton Ohno sold a foul that eliminated the South Koreans from the short-track speed-skating gold medal, the Koreans got payback during the World Cup. South Korean striker Ahn Jung-Hwan, after scoring a goal against the United States, celebrated by imitating the movements of a short-track speed skater -- a direct diss of Anton Ohno.

Elaine Kim is an author, filmmaker and professor of Asian American and comparative ethnic studies at UC-Berkeley. She loved Jung-Hwan's post-goal move and feels sport is the great equalizer for smaller nations used to living in the shadow of the U.S.

"I thought that was really cool," she says with a laugh. "It seems that the U.S. makes all the other countries in the world constantly think of their situation with 9/11. Their issues are the only important issues in the world. Their culture is the only important culture. When it gets moved aside, it's really exciting."

The June 10 U.S.-South Korea World Cup match, which ended in a tie, was much more than a soccer game for Korean Americans and Koreans abroad. It had deep emotional ties to occupation and outrage, a way to exact revenge without firing one missile.

Korea has been mad at the United States for 20 years, Elaine Kim says, pointing out a recent news item about a U.S. Army tank running over two Korean girls. The Status of Forces agreement allows crimes by the Army to be tried by U.S. Armed Forces courts, not Korean courts. Thus the person gets slapped on the wrist.

"It happens so often," Kim says. "It's the culmination of a lot of inequalities of the past. When people were rooting for Korea against the United States, there was all that history there. And for Korean-Americans who were not historically treated as equals in the U.S., it's great to root for Korea against the U.S. It would have been super if Korea won."

Asians of Change

For the less politicized -- like the 5-foot-8-inch Asian American kids at the playground who worship Vince Carter -- seeing a 7-foot-6-inch Asian brother chosen first (by the Houston Rockets) in the NBA draft is an earth-shaking event. In the case of Yao Ming, he presents a supernova of possibilities. His size and versatility has rival team scouts nervous. It's been hinted that if he's as good as he's hyped, Yao Ming could change the way contemporary basketball is played.

"I think it might open up the door for many Asian Americans who have the dream to go to the NBA," says James Ryu, editor at KoreAm Journal. "There's a perception of many Americans that Asians cannot compete in the NBA. However, I think it will still take another 10 years before you will see many Asian American players, like you see in the professional baseball league."

Before that day comes, Yao Ming will have to endure a couple of years being viewed as a pricey novelty -- similar to what Seattle Mariner superstar Ichiro Suzuki and Los Angeles Dodger pitching ace Hideo Nomo both experienced during their rookie seasons. A period of adjustment is followed quickly by high expectations from fans, countrymen, teammates and the swarm of foreign media.

And like Ichiro and Nomo, Yao Ming's rookie season will bring a lot of Asian Americans to the game, boosting attendance and exposure of the NBA. Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella, on a DVD about the 2001 influx of Japanese baseball players called "Rising Sons," acknowledged the link between the spike of Asian faces in the seats and his star right fielder.

"He puts people in the stands, no question," Piniella says about Ichiro. "San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Dallas, we've drawn more Asian people to our baseball games. When you put more people in the ballpark, it's good for baseball and that's exactly what he's done."

The hopes of a country and its expatriates rest firmly on the tall shoulders of Yao Ming. It goes back to representation. Pro sport is showing some progress in Asian role models. Soccer has the South Korean team, baseball has Ichiro and Nomo and others, golf has Se Ri Pak and Tiger Woods, basketball has Wang Zhizhi and now, Yao Ming.

He could be a bust, the Asian version of Shawn Bradley or Michael Olowokandi. He'll probably get dunked on -- there's a rumored pot going around the NBA for the first person to dunk on Yao Ming. But if Ming lays a Spalding facial on Shaq, the shock waves will be felt far and wide, from Beijing to the Bronx.

"I'm worried about the Chinese chucker -- he's going to get knocked around in the paint," says Ben Kim. "But I invite him to shock me."

Todd Inoue is music editor of Metro Silicon Valley.

Hollering into Cyberspace

Recently, cyber house-pet owners got miffed enough at for allowing just anyone to vote down their pets in an online beauty contest that they started an Internet petition at the Petition Site. More than 300 people signed the petition to pressure the company to lighten up on the animals.

"We, the undersigned, are unhappy with the number rating system for the pretty pets and wish to see a different and more friendly system in place," the petition stated. Its author suggested that troublemakers were abusing the site's public accessibility to vote down people's pets.

"Some people rate all pets a 1-and-lower score intentionally for their amusement. This has created conflict and more anger," complained petition author Kim Grimes in a related chatroom posting earlier this year. But despite the petition's popularity, Care2 hasn't changed its rating system.

Color of Money

Meet the Petition Site's mastermind, the very personable Randy Paynter. In a photo on his office wall, Paynter sticks out like any American tourist would, posing fully dressed with a bunch of nearly naked fellas from New Guinea. The picture commemorates the trip he took to Indonesia a few years back. He went there with the mission to find a piece of the natural world that he could turn profitable.

Paynter's nebulous grail included anything he could commercially manipulate without blatantly exploiting the indigenous people or the land, he said. He didn't find it there.

Following his trip, Paynter, a clean-cut, Boy Scout-looking man with strikingly blue eyes, went to business school. He emerged wielding a better idea of where to find his cash cow. Right here.

The U.S. of A., Paynter found, is rich with people who want to feel like they're chipping in for the environment and other good stuff. They just don't know how to take that first altruistic step.

With the Petition Site, Paynter's for-profit petition host service, he makes activism easy.

The Petition Site allows individuals and groups to set up petitions -- existing topics include stopping goat vivisection (a petition that confusingly targets the National Anti-Vivisection Society) and saving Taiwan's abandoned dogs. These petitions are different from the chain-letter ones emailed directly to people. After enough people stumble across a petition, and the campaign reaches its signature goal, the petition is sent to its target by either its sponsor or Paynter's crew, he says. The Petition Site can fax, mail or email it. The company can send the signed petition all at once or in spurts.

The Petition Site isn't unique. i-charity and e.thePeople are just a couple of the like sites also readily available on the Web. These sites' online petitions often target Congress or a department within government complaining about or advising on environmental and other sorts of issues. Some target individuals or businesses.

Internet surfers looking for Sea World, for example, might stumble upon the petition that reads, "Sea World needs larger killer whale tank." It only takes a few seconds to enter a name, email address, city and state, and click on "Add my signature!" And you get a nice note back thanking you "for signing: Sea World Needs Larger Killer Whale Tank." A few taps and clicks, and bam!, you've signed a petition. You're an activist.

The petition sites brag about their ability to revolutionize activism. (It's true that activism has needed a boost over the last several years, according to a 1995 article published by the American Political Science Association reporting a huge three-decade decline in political participation.) The site i-charity, for instance, claims to be "the best tool on the Internet" because it "appeals to people's psychology and allows you to collect more signatures than you would collect otherwise."

Green Lite

Signing and posting petitions on Paynter's site is free. The company makes its money from nonprofit do-gooder groups who hire it to advertise their campaigns to the 2 million people on its mailing list.

On-clickers have the option of "option in" to receive a host of newsletters from these agencies. Sometimes, the newsletter is already checked, so a petition signer would actually have to uncheck it or "opt out" to avoid receiving it. Additional revenue comes from selling enviro-friendly products and providing the occasional tech support on the side. Paynter declined to say how much the company takes in. He said, with 22 employees, his company breaks even.

The company donates 10 percent of its profits to charity, Paynter notes, thus, perhaps avoiding any ideological conflict inherent in trying to save the planet for a fee. That problem solved, Paynter says the real trick is making specific, perhaps radical, causes accessible to regular Joes and Jolenes.

"The biggest challenge in working with environmental organizations is not alienating the mainstream," Paynter says. The site is geared toward "light greens," he says. Those are people who generally don't dress up as giant endangered turtles and block world trade conventions at the risk of arrest and tear-gassing, but who are soft on certain causes.

The question is, what depth does this mouse-clicking sort of activism actually have? If the web as protest battleground stands apart in its power to attract lazy people, then perhaps when it comes to activists, more isn't better -- at least not in terms of accomplishing change through freedom of expression.

"Light greens, sounds like the undecided voter, the middle-of-the-road voter. That's who everybody wants," says Tom Price, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who focuses on political and technological interaction.

For petition peddlers, herding these undirected citizens is a point of pride. "The typical e.thePeople user is not disproportionately politically active," the petition site states on its webpage attempting to debunk "five myths of online activism."

"Thirty-six percent of those surveyed identified e.thePeople as their only method of communication with government officials," brags the site.

Hot Property

So, who are these people everybody wants so badly to back their causes? Lluisa Baques lent the most recent signature to i-charity's petition to "stop the media from glorifying murderers." Baques listed Japan for an address and provided a revealing web link along with a signature.

"Scientists from another planet created all life on Earth using DNA," imparts Baques' link. It goes on to describe the real E.T. "The extraterrestrial was about four feet in height, had long dark hair, olive skin and exuded harmony and humour."

Of course, online petition signers aren't always nuts. But the nature of distributing petitions on the web seems to invite problematic signatures (rather than entirely appropriate ones). Anyone can sign the ongoing "Wolf awareness week recognition" petition on Care2's site. But since it targets Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, the people who signed on from California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia may not mean much to Ohio's governor or sway his final decision whether or not to acknowledge wolf week, Oct. 14-21.

Paynter says the Petition Site has had some successes. He lists one popular petition by sea-creature avenger group Oceana as proof. The petition targeted the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in an effort to protect endangered sea turtles from getting trapped in fishing nets not meant for turtles.

"We found that people were very responsive," said Oceana webmaster Cheryl Contee. The Petition Site helped Oceana stir up 7,500 signatures for their turtle petition. "It's a way that people can easily show that they care about something without a lot of effort," she said.

Zero Effect

The problem with low-effort campaigns is that they are the exact opposite of what government officials look for in constituent feedback. In fact, in the case of the sea turtles, NOAA denies making any policy changes based directly on Oceana's petition campaign. "If we're receiving the same letter over and over again," said one of the fisheries department's head honchos Dr. Rebecca Lent, "it's not providing any new information."

In general, the Internet's power to rev up political interest among Americans has earned mixed reviews. Two years ago, C/Net online news reported in a Tech Trends blurb that "given the lack of interest, we have to say that bringing national politics online has been, so far, a spectacular failure."

On the other hand, "use of government Web sites is one of the fastest growing online activities," according to Congress Online Newsletter's April 2002 issue. The newsletter cites a recent Pew study showing that 62 percent of web surfers (42 million and 15 percent of Americans) have used government sites. Apparently, going directly to a government site is more effective than trying to access the government through a third party.

According to political consultants and congressional aides, congressmembers embrace a hierarchy of public-opinion formats. For constituents, that means it matters how -- not just if -- you tell your reps what you think. Politicians want to see that their constituents put effort into getting their opinions across. They want to hear a personal story, see something in handwriting or shake a hand

Howard Gantman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein's communications director, says any online petition "does get addressed." But a personal letter is "more meaningful" than a mass-produced one. "Some of the mass campaigns are triggered by groups to stress their one issue," Gantman says, rather than the various concerns of individuals.

"Emails that do not target members of Congress are a waste of cyberspace," says Brad Fitch, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit nonpartisan Washington, D.C., group that counsels Congress on communicating with the public. "It's a little bit of a deception on the part of these sites when they say they're targeting the 107th Congress."

Fitch says he helps congressmembers set up filters that screen out mail not pertaining specifically to their jurisdiction, thus rendering generally addressed mail, email or faxes useless.

Ultimately, the fact that the pretty pets petition hasn't amounted to much in the way of results might be especially annoying for Grimes. Not just because it would take an already annoyed person to create a petition about her pet. But because Care2, the target of her petition, is the group that runs the Petition Site -- the web forum where Grimes created her petition hoping to make an impact on the company that gave her that very tool.

Allie Gottlieb is a staff writer at Metro, where this article originally appeared.

Is Protest Music Dead?

Ever since John Lennon and Yoko Ono led a raucous crowd of flower-toting, peasant-bloused hippies in a pot-hazy chorus of "Give Peace a Chance," it seems to have been a pop axiom: When the United States goes to war, the musicians begin calling for peace.

Opposing war hasn't always been a popular position, but it has created some great music. During the Vietnam era, songs like Edwin Starr's "War," Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower," Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" and "Wars of Armageddon," Jimmy Cliff's "Vietnam," Country Joe and the Fish's "Fixing to Die Rag," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" turned defiance into a raging, soaring, brave and melancholic gestures of community.

Even our allegedly apathetic post-Lennonist generation has extended the tradition. When Bush Senior sent troops to Kuwait in 1991, rappers Ice Cube and Paris trained their verbal guns on the White House in "I Wanna Kill Sam" and "Bush Killa," while Bad Religion and Noam Chomsky split a 7-inch into a no-war-for-oil seminar. Antiwar music has become a time-honored balance to "bomb 'em all and let God sort 'em out" fervor. So why, since Sept. 11, have we heard so little new music protesting Bush Junior's war on evil?

Artists who were once outspoken peaceniks seem to have lost their certainty, or even switched their position. For years, U2 led crowds in chants of "No more war!" during their concerts. But during their surrealistic Super Bowl half-time performance this past January, they offered deep ambivalence -- a stark display of the names of Sept. 11 victims set to "Beautiful Day."

Neil Young's "Ohio" memorialized Kent State University's murdered antiwar protesters of 1970; his "Cortez the Killer" condemned imperialism. Now we find him on his post-Sept. 11 cut, "Let's Roll," singing, "Let's roll for freedom; let's roll for love, going after Satan on the wings of a dove."

Young wrote the song to honor the heroes of Flight 93, who subdued their hijackers and paid the ultimate price. But if you believe "Let's Roll" -- with its Bush-reduced ideas of "evil" and "Satan" -- is a cry for peace, you've probably already cleaned out your bomb shelter and reviewed your duck-and-cover manual.

As Leslie Nuchow, a Brooklyn-based folk singer who has been touring the country, says, "Speaking on or singing anything that's critical of this country at this time is more difficult than it was a year ago."

We've seen dozens of acts quietly bury their edgier songs. We've seen radio playlists rewritten so as not to "offend listeners." And we've seen Republican officials and the entertainment industry -- long divided over "traditional values" issues such as violent content and parental advisory stickering -- bury the hatchet. White House Senior Adviser Karl Rove has been meeting regularly with entertainment industry officials to discuss how they can help the war on terrorism.

The result? Not unlike the network news, there's been what a media wonk might call a narrowing of content choice. Think eagle- and flag-adorned anthologies of patriotic music, prefab benefit shows screaming CONSUMER EVENT, Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and Paul McCartney's "Freedom." Perhaps this may all be good for the record business, no small thing for an industry that found itself shrinking by 3 percent -- about $300 million in revenues -- last year. But it's hardly the stuff of great art.

A Twisted Sense Of God

Where are the alternative voices? Let's start with hip-hop, the most socially important music of our time and, until recently, the most successful. Hip-hop's sales led the plunge last year -- by 20 percent, according to Def Jam founder and rap industry leader Russell Simmons.

And so did its vision. While Congress debated the Patriot Act and air strikes left Afghan cities in ruins and untold innocents dead, Jay-Z and Nas declared their own dirty little war for the pockets (if not exactly the minds) of the younger generation.

Jay-Z's dis of Nas, "The Takeover," was based on a sample from the Doors' "Five to One," an anti-Vietnam War song released during 1968's long hot summer whose title supposedly alluded to a demographic menace: five times as many people under the age of 21 as over.

Here's Jim Morrison's original: "The old get old/ And the young get stronger/ May take a week/ And it may take longer/ They got the guns/ But we got the numbers/ Gonna win, yeah/ We're taking over!" Here's J-Hova's slice: "Gonna win, yeah!" Released on Sept. 11, his album, The Blueprint, sold 465,000 copies.

Nas came back with Stillmatic, an album seemingly conceived from a marketing blueprint. Over a decade ago, Nas debuted during the height of hip-hop's social consciousness. To appease these aging fans, he included songs on Stillmatic like the decidedly non-flag-waving "My Country" and "Rule," which bravely ask Bush Junior and the secret bunker crew to "call a truce, world peace, stop acting like savages". But kids love that shit-talking, so there's "Ether," dissing "Gay-Z and Cock-a-Fella Records." Guess which of these songs gets the most rewinds?

In fact, many musicians are commenting on the war, they just aren't being heard. On a new album for Fine Arts Militia called We Are Gathered Here ... , Public Enemy's Chuck D has set scathing spoken-word "lectures" to rockish beats by Brian Hardgroove. Chuck takes apart the war-mobilization effort and condemns the arrogance of the president's foreign policy on "A Twisted Sense of God." But while the song will be available as an MP3 on his website -- -- the album has found no distributor yet.

He says, "You got five corporations that control retail. You got four who are the record labels. Then you got three radio outlets who own all the stations. You got two television networks that will actually let us get some of this across. And you got one video outlet. I call it 5-4-3-2-1. Boom!"

When the World Ends

Message music is being pinched off by an increasingly monopolized media industry suddenly eager to please the White House. At least two of the nation's largest radio networks -- Clear Channel and Citadel Communications -- removed songs from the air in the wake of the attacks. Songs like Drowning Pool's "Bodies" and John Lennon's "Imagine" were confined to MP3 sites and mix tapes. And while pressure to maintain "blacklists" has eased recently, the détente between Capitol Hill, New York and Hollywood -- unseen since World War II -- has tangible consequences.

Bay area artist Michael Franti and Spearhead were invited last November to play The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn. Franti obliged with a new song, "Bomb Da World." Yet the song's chorus -- "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace" -- was apparently too much for the show's producers. Months later, and only after a Billboard magazine article exposed the story, the clip finally aired.

"It's funny," Franti says. "In the past, I'd hear some folksingers singing folksongs or 'Give Peace a Chance' and think, God, this is really corny. But then you realize, in a time of war, it's a really radical message."

Little wonder that artists have quietly censored themselves. The Strokes pulled a song called "New York Cops" from their album, and Dave Matthews decided not to release "When the World Ends" as a single. It's easier to do an industry-sponsored benefit or to simply shut up and go along, than to fight for a message and find it pigeonholed.

As monopolies segment music into narrower and narrower genre markets to be exploited, protest music becomes the square peg. Perhaps the question isn't only whether protest music can survive the war but whether protest music can also survive niche-marketing.

Take KRS-One's new album, Spiritual Minded. In part a reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, the album reconciles Christian spirituality with a radical notion of diversity -- putting together Bronx beats, Cantopop, biblical chapter and verse, and the words "peace" and "As-Salaam Alaikum" in the same song.

"We live in a Christian nation," he says. "I can only give the public that which it can digest. So I put this album out. The door swings open. Christians are like, 'Yeah, wow, KRS! He finally came over.' Now I'm over. Now let's talk."

But if this is his most subtle effort yet to promote a message of peace and unity, it is still a record that needs to be marketed. So while Spiritual Minded has been a dud in the hip-hop world, it topped the less lucrative Gospel charts earlier this year.

Even indie labels no longer provide an alternative, says Joel Schalit, the Bay Area-based editor of Punk Planet and a member of dub-funk band Elders of Zion. Schalit's new book, Jerusalem Calling (Akashic Books), features a chapter that indicts the indie-punk scene, a movement which began as a highly charged reaction to Reaganism and major labels and ended up a calcifying, apolitical, "petit bourgeois" feeder-system for the same majors.

"I think our generation has started to move in the direction of formulating its own distinct progressive political positions, but in many respects, I think that the trauma that was Sept. 11 has thus far stopped them from doing anything new," he says. "There haven't been people rushing out to print 7-inch singles attacking American foreign policy like there was during the Gulf War."

He adds, "A lot of label owners, especially on the independent level, are very concerned that promoting ideology is not the same as promoting art."

If that sounds reasonable at first glance, consider the question that Bay Area anti-prison activist and Freedom Fighter Music co-producer Ying-Sun Ho asks in reference to rap: "You don't think a song that talks about nothing but how much your jewelry shines has a political content to it?"

Acts like Jay-Z are seen as artists with universal appeal, while niche-marketing lumps together acts that have little in common. The subcategory of "conscious rappers," for instance, has been used to sell Levi's jeans and Gap clothing to college-educated, disposable-income-spending hip-hop fans. In this logic, it's not the rappers' message that brings the audience together, it's what their audience wears that brings the rappers together.

Part of the recent wave of "conscious rap" acts promoted by major labels, Dead Prez disdains the entire category. Positivity isn't politics, rapper M-1 argues. Hip-hop has not yet produced much antiwar music because a lot of "conscious rappers" were never clear about their political positions in the first place, he believes, and Sept. 11 revealed their basic lack of depth.

"There's a lifestyle that goes with not being aligned with the politics of U.S. imperialism. It's not just a one-day protest," he says, while working in Brooklyn on Walk Like a Warrior, the follow-up to Let's Get Free. "We're in a new period. A lot of people are not seeing what has to be and are looking at it from just a red, white and blue angle."

Hard Rain Gonna Fall

But perhaps, in this connected world, we also possess accelerated expectations. History shows that radical ideas don't take hold overnight. World War II's hit parade featured sentimental escapism like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" and sugary patriotism like the Andrews' Sisters "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."

During the '50s, a progressive folk movement emerged, but it wasn't until Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez revived folk amid the early-'60s ferment of student organizing that ideas of disarmament and racial justice began to take root.

As Craig Werner, professor of African American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America (Plume, 1999), tells me, "The foundation of the anti-Vietnam War music was in the folk revival. It was almost as if there were an antiwar movement that was in place that was doing the groundwork. They'd been writing those kinds of songs for years when Vietnam came around."

Werner dates the emergence of anti-Vietnam War music to ex-folkie Barry McGuire's 1966 hit "Eve of Destruction," a song that faced widespread censorship. "I was growing up in Colorado Springs, which is a military town. The week that 'Eve of Destruction' came out, it broke onto the Top 20 charts on the local station at No. 1. And then was never heard again."

That moment is not near in these early days of the war on evil. In the long run, Nas' "My Country" and "Rule," with their laser focus on cause and effect, or Outkast's anti-recessionary global humanism on "The Whole World" may prove to be more prophetic.

For now, confusion and flux and omnidirectional rage carry the day. Bay Area rapper Paris recently addressed the second Bush in "What Would You Do," a track on his upcoming Sonic Jihad album "Now ask yourself who's the one with the most to gain/Before 911 motherfuckas couldn't stand his name/Now even niggas waiving flags like they lost they mind/Everybody got opinions but don't know the time." Ghostface Killah seems to have captured the moment on Wu-Tang Clan's "Rules." Addressing Osama bin Laden directly about the attacks on New York, he raps, "No disrespect, that's where I rest my head/ I understand you gotta rest yours, too." But since bin Laden has brought the bombs -- "Nigga, my people's dead!" -- it's officially on: "Mister Bush, sit down! We're in charge of the war."

Healing Force

Still, musicians must do what they do, and the story is not yet over. Folkie Leslie Nuchow believes in music's ability to transform the people who listen to it, and she doesn't waste a lot of time worrying about who will distribute it. Recently, she recorded the mesmerizing "An Eye for an Eye (Will Leave the Whole World Blind)." Accompanied only by piano, she elaborates on Gandhi's famous line mostly in a tortured whisper. It's only available through her website

Nuchow -- who likes to point out that our national anthem "glorifies war" but has agreed to sing for U.N. troops stationed in Kosovo later this year -- believes music is not merely a product, it's a process. After watching the Twin Towers collapse from her Brooklyn building, she spent that evening agonizing over what to do next. "I kept on saying to myself, what could my political action be?" Then she realized, "I'm a musician. Ri-i-i-ight. Let me do music!"

She went to demonstrations and gatherings, and handed out fliers inviting people to come and sing the next morning. About 50 people showed up. They walked through the streets singing "This Little Light of Mine," "America the Beautiful" and "Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace)."

"We walked as close to ground zero as we could get, and we sang for the firefighters," she says. "We sang for the rescue workers and the firefighters. We went up to the hospitals, and we sang for the doctors, and we sang for the volunteers. And then -- this was the hardest -- we went to sing for the families who were trying to find out what happened to their loved ones."

Nuchow recalls that the music did exactly what it was supposed to do. "People wept. Other people came and joined us," she says. "And to me, that's action. That's making a statement through music, using music as a healing force."

And for now, perhaps, that's more than enough.

Jeff Chang writes for numerous publications, including Colorlines, the Source and

In Defense of Alanis

I had a friend who once got down on her stomach and rolled around on the floor at a nightclub in order to demonstrate the playing style of Van Connor of the Screaming Trees. The guy she was showing waited until she got up and then said, "Goodbye, embarrassing woman!" As he backed away from her, a sheepish grin appeared on his ugly mug.

You know that kind of laughter that hurts your middle and brings tears to your eyes? I laughed like that the rest of that night, but I was laughing at him, not her. I guess I took the phrase "Goodbye, embarrassing woman" as a compliment -- which may be why I, seemingly alone among critics, am a fan of Alanis Morissette.

Morissette has been mocked for her confessional lyrics since the day she released her hugely successful debut album, Jagged Little Pill, in 1995, but I think that such mockery is actually a secret tribute to her talent and sincerity. Morissette isn't afraid to write mawkish songs about her bad relationships, revealing (and possibly reveling in) her own mistakes, rolling mentally on the floor like my friend. She isn't afraid to look like an idiot. That may be embarrassing, but it's also honest in a field like rock & roll, which hardly knows honesty when it sees it, and makes fun of it when it does.

Morissette's latest, Under Rug Swept, is as embarrassing as anything she's ever written, and that's saying a lot. The opening track alone -- "21 Things I Want in a Lover" -- scans exactly like the Alanis Morissette Lyric Generator Internet site (, even using six plural nouns to describe the subject sentence, but that doesn't make it a bad song or this a bad album. Under Rug Swept is that rarest of items, a well-produced hard-rock album by a woman who sings and writes her own music. How embarrassing -- not.

Granted, the album is as confessional as all get out. "Hands Clean" is as catchy as "You Oughta Know" and just as titillating. Morissette sings from the perspective of an older man having an affair with a much younger employee. "I might want to marry you one day if you'd watch that weight and keep a firm body," sings the man, with Alanis chiming in (presumably as herself on the chorus), "Ooh, this could be messy, and, ooh, I don't seem to mind." It's an odd form of narrative, but it makes its point: the male outlook sounds sickening in anyone's mouth, male or female. And if Alanis is writing autobiographically, she's more to be pitied than vilified.

As that song indicates, Morissette's grammar and syntax can be a little confusing. It's as if she's translating everything from the French, especially when she goes negative. ("Do you not play dirty when engaged in competition?" she sings at one point and, worse, "Are you not addicted?" rather than the more straightforward "Are you an addict?") But since when has smooth syntax been a big part of rock & roll brilliancy?

"Dear Momma's boy," she sings on the next track, "I know you've had your butt licked by your mother / I know you've enjoyed all that attention from her / and every woman graced with your presence after." The syntax is horrible, but Morissette writes like people think and talk, and she writes about the things we think and talk about. The fact that those things tend to be shallow and petty is more of a comment on our brains than on her songwriting skill.

Incidentally, even when I don't agree with her portentous take on men, I like her production sound, her sweeping vocals and the courageous way she beats up on her old boyfriends. But there's another reason I like Alanis Morissette, and it has nothing to do with music. It is merely that, alone among million-selling female artists we hear on the radio, she is the only one who doesn't do it with her looks. She isn't pretty, and she doesn't dress provocatively. She may be an embarrassing woman in verse, but she's got a certain amount of physical dignity, and that, in my opinion, is more important than being seen and not heard.

Gina Arnold writes frequently for the Metro Silicon Valley, where this article originally appeared.

Online Gambling Sinks Students into Debt

[Editor's note: A group of Santa Clara University communications students -- Jennifer Kanne, David Dunch, Joe Tone, Nicci Schellinger, Emily Bechen, Helen Allrich, Jaehoon Moon, Steve McCarthy, Laura Vidunas, Natalie Calderon and Alexandra Tieu -- wrote this report under the instruction of Barbara Kelley. Some of the student gamblers interviewed for this story would only agree to be interviewed if their identity was protected. Most are identified by first name only.]

After putting the finishing touches on his economics homework, "Justin," a college senior, picks up the phone and dials a familiar number. "Are you playin'?" he asks.

Justin dresses quickly in the dark, careful not to wake his roommate, and splashes his face with cold water. Thirty minutes later, a cigarette dangles between two fingers, and a computer screen glows in the dark of his friend's dorm room.

Justin paces behind his friend's desk. A fan pushes the stale air around the room as Justin and his pal plot their next move. They draw their cards, and the garish letters of flash underneath the full house on the screen. They've won this hand, but the $20,000 Justin has poured into his gambling habit taints the victory.

But while Justin seems in over his head, for him and many other college students, it could be even worse. Problem gamblers between the ages of 18 and 25 lose an average of $30,000 each year and rack up $20,000 to $25,000 in credit card debt, according to the California Council on Problem Gambling. In a health advisory issued by the American Psychiatric Association early this year, 10 percent to 15 percent of young people reported having experienced one or more significant problems relating to gambling.

Still, people don't want to face the problem. Many university conduct codes neglect to mention gambling at all. Credit cards enable students without extra cash to gamble even after accumulating debt, and the Internet beckons with numerous online gambling sites.

"People who are young are characteristically risky with drugs, alcohol, sex and gambling," says Christine Reilly, a researcher at the Harvard Medical School's Division on Addiction, "and are at a higher risk of these behaviors developing into addictions."

A high-profile sports betting scandal at Northwestern University that drew national attention in 1998 prompted the National Association of School Personnel Administrators (NASPA) to conduct a study on the prevalence and impact of college gambling. The results of the study, which surveyed students at seven universities, are still being compiled, but NASPA researcher Ken Winters, Ph.D., says young people are attracted to the thrill of betting. According to Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, college students consider gambling more acceptable than drinking.

Risky Business

College senior Jeff Marinacci doesn't regard gambling as a problem. On a January trip to Reno, Nevada, he arrived at the tables with a few hundred dollars. But he and three companions won big -- $6,500 by the end of the weekend.

"Every time I go [gambling]," Marinacci says, "I think I'm going to win."

But while Marinacci doesn't seem concerned about developing an addiction, experts on addiction are. A study conducted by Clayton Neighbors, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, identified about 15 percent of college students as at least at risk for gambling problems. This number is much larger than the general population's, which Neighbors says runs between 3 percent and 5 percent.

Once these students develop a problem, half will become compulsive, according to Tom Tucker, director of the California Council on Problem Gambling: "Students are doomed to be the next generation of problem gamblers without prevention education at the college level."

Researcher Durand Jacobs, a clinical professor of medicine at Loma Linda University, says lack of exciting entertainment contributes to the number of students who try gambling. "Young males seek excitement from pervasive boredom," Jacobs says. "Gambling is like an upper drug, such as cocaine. It produces abnormal arousal levels."

In fact, a study published by a team of researchers in the journal Neuron found that gambling affects the brain in the same way as cocaine. According to the study, the areas of the brain stimulated by the anticipation and experience of gambling are similar to those stimulated by euphoria-inducing drugs.

This seems even more true for men. There are nine males with gambling disorders for every female, according to Dr. Kim Bullock of the Stanford University School of Medicine. Bullock, who studies impulse-control problems, says gambling disorders in men parallel compulsive shopping disorders in women.

Bullock attributes the low recovery rates for gambling disorders partly to genes that predispose people to risk-taking and depression. Gambling addicts may bet to fill an emotional void caused by underlying depression.

Virtual Vegas

Filling that void has become vastly easier for college students, as the Internet can turn any dorm room into a gambling opportunity. With more than 1,400 Internet casinos just a click away, college students can use the high-speed web connections to place bets on anything from the Super Bowl to Yahtzee.

Currently, all online casinos are based in offshore locations like the Caribbean, Australia and the United Kingdom. In a matter of minutes, users can download software or log onto a server to access casino games. Operators make the sites as user-friendly as possible, accepting credit cards, debit cards, personal checks or wire transfers. The sites mimic the look and feel of Las Vegas with sounds of chips stacking and slots ringing, effervescent colors and simulated card tables.

Harvard researcher Christine Reilly says because young people are the group most comfortable using the Internet, online gambling is especially a problem for them.

"The Internet is quick and easy and offers instant gratification," she explains. "It leaves you very little time to think. You just act without noting the drawbacks."

The drawbacks seem to have been lost on Nevada lawmakers, who voted to approve online gambling in June 2000. The bill, after a 17-4 state Senate vote, went to Gov. Kenny Guinn, who signed it June 14.

On the other hand, the Justice Department says Internet gambling is still illegal in the United States, and last February, Republican Rep. James Leach of Iowa sponsored a bill called the Internet Gambling Funding Prohibition Act to prohibit the use of bank instruments for unlawful Internet gambling.

"Particularly vulnerable are young people," says Leach, former chairman of the House Banking Committee, "who are members of the most literate computer generation."

The Financial Services Committee, under the chairmanship of Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), held hearings until the bill was passed Oct. 31 with a vote of 34-18. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee, which has until March 29 to act on it, or the bill will go to the House floor.

Similarly, a bill titled the Combating Illegal Gambling Reform and Modernization Act was sponsored by Republican Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia on the first of November to expand and modernize the prohibition against interstate gambling. It, too, sits in the Judiciary Committee with Rep. Leach's bill. No update has been given on when it might reach the House floor. Since both bills are similar, they may be combined before going to the House.

Credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard are actively lobbying against new legislation like Leach's bill and New York Democratic Rep. John La Falce's Internet Gambling Payments Prohibition Act, which contain provisions that prohibit the use of electronic fund transfers and, most importantly, credit cards. (MasterCard representatives did not wish to comment on the issue.)

What's in Your Wallet?

With graduation just a few days away, senior "Mitchell" spends his nights at the bar and his days hanging out, just like many of his classmates. However, unlike his peers, "Mitchell" is shouldering a $10,000 debt, most of which he attributes to gambling.

"Mitchell" recalls a December trip to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, with fraternity brother Jeff Kopaceck. Plans for a relaxing weekend changed as "Mitchell" bolted for the casino the second he and Jeff parked the car.

"I was like, 'I can't hold back,'" he remembers.

After a few hours at the tables, "Mitchell" and Kopaceck were up $400. Red Bull and vodka fueled increasingly aggressive betting. Yellow $10 chips thrown on double-down hands were replaced by black $100 chips. "Mitchell" and Kopaceck were beyond drunk -- they were drunk enough to believe they could beat the game.

"It's the alcohol, man," Kopaceck says. "If there were no drinking in casinos, people would lose nothing."

"Mitchell" recalls filling out credit card applications he received in the mail during his freshman year. Those two credit cards, which now carry a combined balance of around $10,000, have seen their share of casino ATMs. They've also enabled "Mitchell" to gamble the way he likes: big.

Forty percent to 60 percent of cash wagered in casinos is withdrawn from ATMs, either from personal accounts or as cash advances from credit cards, according to the National Gambling Impact Study Commission Report. Credit card companies are not required to report amounts borrowed for gambling.

On a spring-break trip to Las Vegas, "Mitchell" called his credit card company to request a $1,000 extension. After making him wait a few minutes for approval, they granted it to him, along with another $500 two hours later.

"It is easier to gamble for college students now, as credit cards are so easily accessible," Reilly says. "Companies are very aggressive toward college students with their marketing strategies."

Arul Chinnappan, a recent graduate, never gambled until he received an email: "Congratulations Arul, you won $100!" Out of curiosity, he clicked on the gambling site and began playing blackjack. After an hour, $230 of his money was gone. The next day, his email account showed 10 letters from online casinos offering money to play and six emails from credit card companies. After three months, Chinnappan owed credit card companies $12,000.

"Do college students have the money to be gambling with?" asks Tom Tucker of the California Council on Problem Gambling. "No. But if they have credit cards they do."

In Denial

There was a time when "Brian" was afraid to answer the phone when it rang. He knew it was his girlfriend, knew she was calling about their dinner plans, but he also knew he needed to save money to pay the credit card bills in front of him, which added up to about $8,000 -- all from one bad month gambling.

"Once you sit down in the chair and look at the cards, there is only one thing on the gambler's mind," Brian says. "And that is to win more."

But Brian didn't win, and quickly found himself thousands in the hole and unable to stop. It was only when his father confronted him about his habit that he was able gain control.

"He told me to either quit gambling or quit him," Brian says. "Knowing how hard my father worked in his life, I knew gambling was the last thing he would permit his son to do."

But for most compulsive gamblers, it takes more than a lecture from dad to put an end to such a serious problem. The gap between numbers of college-aged pathological gamblers and those who seek treatment is sizable. Approximately 5 percent of college students are compulsive gamblers, according to a meta-analysis study conducted at Harvard in 1997. But the Helpline Report for the California Council on Problem Gambling found that only 10 percent of all callers were between the ages of 21 and 25. Reilly says this indicates that college students often don't seek treatment.

"The numbers are still relevant, because we still continue to keep feeding estimates from other prevalent studies," Reilly says. "We continue to keep updating and haven't seen any noticeable differences in the numbers."

Sandy, who asked her last name be withheld, became a compulsive gambler while working in card rooms for 10 years. Today, she is a public relations manager for Gambler's Anonymous, which experts consider the most effective treatment. She says she "went back and forth with my addiction until I was finally able to follow the program. Not everyone can do it.

"It's an unbelievable addiction. You lose your home and your family. You want to die."

Ed Looney of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey cautions that compulsive gambling, like most addictions, is an impulse disorder that can be treated only when the addict is willing to make lifestyle adjustments.

"It's so developed that you need to change yourself," Looney says, "And if you don't, relapse is a reality. Most people who come to self-help groups will relapse."

Looney, also a recovering gambling addict, says facing reality is the hardest step for compulsive gamblers to take. But most college-aged gamblers don't seem ready to take that step. Jeff Marinacci still believes he can win every time he bets. While Brian "quit" after the threat from his father, he still wouldn't say he's completely done gambling.

And when Justin has enough time, he makes the 30-minute drive to a local card room instead of betting on the Internet. He slips into lightweight Polo khakis, dress shoes and a short-sleeved shirt -- he likes to keep his arms free. He travels light, carrying only his cell phone and Chapstick: the weight of coins or keys is distracting.

Eight hours later, he returns home, unable to fall asleep. He replays each move he made that night, wondering what the outcome would have been had he played his cards differently. And although he knows he is at risk for developing a gambling problem, at this point he feels he can control it.

"I worry about if I'll be able to stop this," he says. "My parents voice concerns all the time. My mom hates that I play; every time she gives me money, she asks, 'Is this for gambling?' But I'm in college, and I have so few responsibilities. I have the next 45 years of my life to work everyday."

Zenfully Yours

The cereal aisle inside Albertson's on Capitol Expressway is a scary place. Down on the lower shelves -- the ones that are eye-level to a 5-year-old -- a vampire with slicked-back hair peers out over a bowl of chocolate pebbles. A few boxes to the left, a sugar-smacked bear flings spoonfuls of slop. And in between, a crazed rabbit is frozen in a hyperactive gaze.

Up on the top shelf, though, the cereal speaks to the adults. Brands boast about high fiber! One box pictures trim-looking adults jogging along the rim of a lake. Even Grape Nuts asks potential consumers to "Discover the Energy."

And among these top-shelf breakfasts-in-a-box, one stands out. The box is gently swathed in strokes of baby blue and soft yellow. Near the top of the box, the silhouette of a woman's body raises her arms heavenward, in victory. It looks like a dream. Its name is Harmony.

I reach for it. On the back of the box a middle-aged woman wearing a cable-knit sweater stands on a seashore and, again, she is raising her arms above her head. To some, like me, she is indicating a field goal has been scored. To others, she is celebrating her empowerment.

On the back of the box, in dramatic italics, the ingredients -- soy, folic acid, calcium -- are accounted for, along with the cereal's philosophy: Meeting the nutritional needs of women is what Harmony cereal is all about.

I say what-the-hey and toss it in the cart. A few steps later I notice a new cereal from the New Organics Co. They sell a generic-looking type of frosted flakes that are, according to the box, "Organically Certified." The top of the box suggests it will feed more than just my stomach -- "Mind. Body. Spirit." Jeez, I say. Mind, body and spirit? I toss it in next to the Harmony.

Now that I'm aware of the spiritual movement taking place inside Albertson's, I'm curious to see how many products will deliver me down the path to solace. Over in the tissue aisle, Puffs sells dispensers that contain "inspiration." Dexatrim, the appetite suppressant, offers "Dexatrim Natural in Green Tea Formula." The box shows two leaves swirling into a ball to form what looks like the yin-yang symbol.

On the deodorant rack, Secret is selling a new sweat-stopper called Genuine. Genuine allows you to "carry peace within your being. [Because] With grace, you accept what you have become." Another Secret deodorant, named Optimism, offers its own locution for living: "There isn't time for trivial things to bring down your refreshing energy -- Optimism will suit your life."

To drink, Tazo Tea, "The Reincarnation of Tea," claims, "Tea enlightenment: Tazo premium teas and herbal infusions, blended with artistry bordering on magical, will soothe your soul." And Dixie Cups now sells "Expressions Cups," disposable cups that offer words of wisdom. Reads one, "The eyes are the windows to the soul."

I'm looking for it now and I see it everywhere. I come across Depends, the diaper for those who've lost bladder control, and I see it has two new shelf competitors: Serenity and Poise. Serenity keeps you dry, but Poise allows you "The freedom to be yourself."

So what I want to know is, with Harmony in my cart and Poise in my hand, who stuck their Zen in my peanut butter?

Take Us Om

Professor Rajeev Batra, of the University of Michigan, knows who's responsible for all of this. He's co-authored four books on advertising and is considered a guru when it comes to tracking advertising fads and branding techniques. While Batra says he isn't aware of any hard data that proves spirituality-laced products are blazing a path to higher profits, his own observations have noticed a warm 'n' fuzzy shift in advertising today. He suspects, not surprisingly, that that demographic gorilla named baby boomers -- some 70 million people between the ages of 40 and 60 -- is guiding this long, hard look into the mirror. Batra says any shift in mainstream advertising copy can be attributed to a shift in the collective conscious of the average baby boomer.

"What's going on in their lives, and in their heads and in their hearts, is what Madison Avenue plays to," Batra says. "research suggests as we get older we become less concerned with the success of our careers and begin thinking in terms of the success of our spirituality."

And oh, how spirituality has become successful these days.

According to a poll taken by the 2-year-old Spirituality and Health Magazine, more people now consider themselves "spiritual" as opposed to "religious." In short, saying one is religious, the poll indicates, gives people the heebie-jeebies, while defining one- self as "spiritual" evokes a sort of vast worldliness. Being spiritual is taking a walk in the woods on weekends and rolling out the sticky mat at lunchtime; being religious means going to a church, getting on your knees and praying to a statue.

Yoga, as it turns out, is experiencing a wild and well-reported-on resurgence in popularity -- for immediate proof one need only look to the new Monday night Yoga Night at the downtown nightclub The Usual. Where Professor Batra would cite the yoga boom as an excellent example of the spiritually deprived baby boomers looking for a few answers just before the gig of life ends, Time magazine suggested earlier this year that our hectic high-tech exterior has driven us humans inside, seeking an inner silence.

"In this modern maelstrom, yoga's tendency to stasis and silence seems at first insane, then inspired," the magazine reported. "The notion of bodies at rest becoming souls at peace is reactionary, radical and liberating. If it cures nagging backache, swell. But isn't it bliss just to sit this one out, to freeze-frame the frenzy, to say no to all that and om to what may be beyond it, or within ourselves?"

In response to the popularity of yoga, Madison Avenue was quick to hear the chant of cash registers ringing. In just the past few months, according to Advertising Age, brands such as Nike and DaimlerChrysler Jeep have featured their product users practicing yoga -- and the ads didn't appear in Yoga Journal, a publishing juggernaut currently enjoying massive popularity and sky-high ad rates. A new Oil of Olay television commercial focuses on a mother stretching out on a yoga mat while feeding her baby. The product helps Mom enjoy a "complete life."

Readers of the current issue of Men's Journal may have noticed a full-page Saks Fifth Avenue ad which pictures a male CEO-type sitting on top of his desk, folded up in a lotus position.

The ad was a good one. As a captain of industry, the CEO was obviously drained from competing in the cutthroat capitalist world. And here he sat, able to meditate away into a place of inner comfort, while wearing Saks Fifth Avenue clothes.

Soul Proprietors

In Oakland, Burt Alper, 32, is a strategy director and founding partner of Catchword, a national firm that creates names for products. Alper was born and raised in Berkeley, the self-proclaimed son of Bobos -- short for the Bohemian Bourgeoisie -- and picked up his MBA at Harvard Business School.

Alper's staff is beefed up with linguists who can turn a phrase on a dime and get a dollar in return. Catchword named products like the Spalding Infusion basketball, Adobe Photoshop Elements, Dreamery Ice Cream and, recently, the Oasis health bar for women.

Two years ago, Clif Bar had released the Luna Bar for women, and Alper's company was quickly hired by rival Balance Bar to name a competitor. Alper and his crew chewed on the new product, interviewed its makers and took it through the weeks-long naming process. The team wanted to steer clear of giving it an overly feminine moniker, yet still convey "serenity and relaxation."

"It had to be for the woman who was healthy, energy-conscious, somewhat spiritual in a Zen sort of way," Alper says. "It's for the woman who is a multitasker, a woman who could bring home the bacon and bake it, too. It needed to give that lift, like a cup of coffee, but without the negative connotation associated with caffeine. And the word oasis symbolized that safe-haven for her. It said, 'Even though your world could be crazy all around you, this could give you that pickup -- but on a natural theme." (Since Oasis arrived on the market, another brand, named Essentials, entered the female sports-bar genre.)

Alper agrees that brands and advertising campaigns are moving toward an inner-self ethos, but he sees it mostly in the New Agey Bay Area, compared to outside markets.

Still, Alper adds, he's hearing frequent requests from even his technology clients to give their products more melodic names. After a decade of Ciscos and Compaqs, it was time to put the Buddha in the Machine.

One tech company that came to Catchword offered a service that tracked where specific web users traveled on the Internet. Through interviews with company executives, Alper and his colleagues learned that the company offered something "other people couldn't see." Since the product multitasked and wasn't just a one-task pony, the name had to reflect its broad capacity.

After several index searches and creative meetings, a colleague told the story of the Asian custom of reading tea leaves. According to Alper, the custom calls for an elder to dry out tea leaves, sprinkle them to the ground and, depending on the way they fall, read the future.

Since the client's technology looked into the future, sort of, and the customer asked for anything but technical, Alper's team suggested the name Tea Leaf Technology. Approval from the client was instantaneous. "It doesn't sound like a technology company," Alper says, "and that was important to them."

Alper says that it's common for popular advertising fads and their products to endure a backlash. Starbucks, Nike and Apple Computers all suffered from becoming too cool for their own good. In one era, sugar-heavy cereals could be coveted, then undergo a death-by-calcium. I asked him if he foresaw a market response against the Zen-in-cereal, and Alper chirped up with a better idea.

"Instead of a backlash, maybe the next generation will ask for cereal infused with echinacea? Or ginseng?"

In Harmony's Way

Only 40 percent of Americans went to a place of worship last year, but just about everybody ate something. And most likely it was a brand item that they felt an emotional connection to.

So, do Americans really believe in spirituality? Probably not. Do they believe in cereal? You betcha.

But as products that are geared toward our mind and body start jumping from the shelves of Whole Foods and into the Albertson's on Capitol Expressway, they've still got a long way to go before they gain broad mainstream acceptance.

Megan Nightingale, assistant marketing director for Harmony, says the driving force of the product was always meeting women's nutritional needs, just like it said on the box, and also meeting women's needs "on a day-to-day basis." Harmony was "years and years in the making" and was munched on by hundreds of focus groups before it hit the market in January. Nothing inside or outside the box hasn't been scrutinized more than a thousand times.

I asked Nightingale if Harmony was developed specifically to tap into the spirituality vibe. She took a few seconds to ponder the question.

"I don't know that Harmony was designed to speak to spirituality specifically," she said slowly. "But it does acknowledge today's women and where they're at -- and certainly a part of what is important to women today is spirituality."

As I scribbled down this quote, a pause fell between us and I could hear Nightingale rethink what she had just said. She perked up. "But I want to make it dead clear that we did not design Harmony as a spiritual cereal per se."

That said, General Mills is working hard to make sure Harmony lands in a lot of shopping carts, regardless of why.

Earlier this year, as the official story of Harmony goes, a woman in Santa Monica named Marsh Engle mourned the passing of her mother. At the funeral Engle was taken aback by how many people commented on her mother's compassion and personal strength. "But I'm not sure she ever saw that in herself," Engle now says.

Motivated and inspired, Engle set out to create "Amazing Woman's Day," a national day where women could just "stop to recognize how wonderful they actually are."

As Engle planned it, she envisioned meeting places inside shopping malls in 10 cities across the country where women could converge, listen to motivational speakers and participate in seminars.

Though Engle had more passion than proceeds, she says she went to General Mills and gave them the chance to sponsor the event. In the end, General Mills underwrote the entire nationwide event at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In return, Harmony set up booths for promoting the cereal and attached its name to everything in sight.

One such item was the "Harmony Wisdom Wall," which asked women to write inspirational messages. As General Mills put it on the promotional website, the Harmony Wisdom Wall was a collection of musings, "'food for thought' from women to women." Each city had a piece of the wall and, after the day was over, the 10 pieces were flown to Dallas and connected to make one big wall of inspiration. For each message posted, Harmony pledged to donate $1 toward a local women's charity.

By Engle's account, the day was a booming success, thanks largely to General Mills. A lot of cereal was shared and presumably eaten, and afterward Engle didn't have to return to her old job as a promotional marketer for the entertainment industry. Instead, General Mills continued its support, which has allowed Engle to work year-round on her project.

When I asked Engle if she ate Harmony (despite the cereal's high mineral content, 60 percent of the recommended daily allowance [RDA] of calcium and 50 percent of the RDA of iron, each serving contains 13 grams of sugar) she gave an enthusiastic yes. "Their cereal is a wonderful cereal with a lot of good ingredients for women." She went on to say the cereal was "well received" and that "energetically the cereal is what we're all about."

After learning of Engle's background in marketing, my inner reporter sensed Engle might have been brought in by General Mills to push their cereal. Engle told me her mother died in 2001, which would have been just weeks before Amazing Woman's Day took place -- a quick turnaround to organize a national party. With some reservation, I asked her again if General Mills hadn't planned the whole thing and come up with her story, and she insisted that she was motivated only by her mother's death to create the day of womanly recognition. General Mills, it turned out, just happened to be the right product at the right time.

"Now I'm working on it full time," she said. "They're [Harmony] working with us again and you'll see us next year."

Garden of Eatin'

This year the best place to find the food that appeals to the soul, outside of Whole Foods and Wild Oats -- two large stores known in the organic food industry as the "Super Naturals" -- will be inside Albertson's, the first mainstream grocery store to carry products from the ever-expanding New Organics Co. It's no fluke. The company was founded in 1997 by two grocery store executives who had one thing in mind: "To bring organic foods to the mainstream," says Anthony Zolezzi, President.

And it's certainly a good time to be an organic food company treading in the mainstream. According to the Organic Foods Association, consumption of their synthetic-free products has grown 20 percent every year for the past 11 years and retail sales of organics in 2001 are projected at $9.3 billion; by 2005, sales are expected to reach nearly $20 billion.

The New Organics Co., for its part, offers pastas, corns, cereals, mustard, condiments and a new line of children's foods -- all of them made from products with minimal pesticide residue, Zolezzi says. And, since Zolezzi's company was the first to reach the masses outside the Super Naturals, it's also the first to get a whiff of within-the-industry criticism.

The push into the middle ground has angered some longtime organic-foodies who complain that the "industrialization" of organics will only lead to the oft-feared "organic Twinkie" and compromise the principles of eating healthy, all in the name of earning the coveted "Certified Organic" seal. Players like the New Organics Co. that tout a product for the "Mind/Body/Spirit" are viewed as the greedy uncle who stole the secret family recipe, watered it down and sold it to the masses. Mind. Body. Profit.

Zolezzi says his company hasn't heard of any backlash from the smaller organic companies since the New Organics Co. arrived, yet he accepts the market tension that exists.

"There's always going to be some people in any industry who are unhappy," he says. "But we haven't heard anything like that. Look, the bottom line is that everyone has the same goals. Everyone wants a safer planet, a cleaner earth and healthier food. Doesn't matter how it happens, who profits or how it gets to market -- just as long as we all meet those goals."

Eaten Up

A few sunday mornings ago, I slumbered into the Barnes & Noble bookstore on Almaden Expressway near Highway 85, looking to meet a goal of my own. I needed coffee. I made a beeline for the Starbucks Cafe in the back. Fuzzy-headed and groggy and far, far away from any locally owned coffee store, I took my place at the back of a single-file line, behind 10 other caffeine junkies.

Now, there is no denying that Starbucks has become the decal for mainstream. A man wearing Gap khakis, a Gap shirt and Nike running shoes stood in front of me. And there was another guy dressed just like him a few dudes in front of him.

In my grumpy haze, I wondered why more people weren't working behind the counter. It was Sunday morning, good God.

As I waited, I looked to the right of the cashier's stand and noticed a large yellow poster advertising a new Starbucks product: "Zen Dream Tea." Next to the cash register, in point-of-purchase placing, were a few boxes of the new Zen Dream Tea.

I studied the new product as the line moved forward. If I drink the tea, I'll have Zen, yeah? I'll have dreams? I'll have Zen dreams? What the hell is a Zen dream, anyway? And can it be purchased?

I was curious enough to try.

"I'll have one large Zen Dream Tea, please."

Fat Chance

Jean Renfro Anspaugh and her friends called him Big Mike. At 6-feet-4-inches, Big Mike was a mountain of a man who topped 400 pounds. Big Mike's wife was an active, physically fit woman, and Jean speculates that this may have given him an added incentive to lose weight. So, in the fall of 1995 at Pitt County Memorial Hospital in North Carolina, Big Mike, who had an enlarged heart, underwent a gastric surgery. And then, to the astonishment of his wife and his friends, Big Mike lost consciousness on the operating room table and never woke up. Big Mike, a husband and father of two, was dead at 35 years old.

It wasn't the first time a surgery to correct obesity had taken a toll on Jean's circle of family and friends. In 1987, Jean's overweight aunt, Beverly Grant, told no one except her husband she was planning a gastric bypass operation at a hospital in Kansas City, Mo. She told relatives that she was merely going in for a "procedure," neglecting to mention that surgeons would be removing a portion of her intestine in an attempt to curtail her weight. On the operating room table, Beverly's lungs filled up with liquid and she died. She was 42.

Now Jean, 47, who moved from Sacramento to Durham, N.C., to lose weight on the "Rice Diet" -- a precursor to exclusionary food diets like Atkins -- is contemplating the newest and most popular form of gastric bypass surgery to date: laparoscopic Roux-en-Y. The two deaths and the experience of another friend who had the surgery, fell sick afterward and underwent 11 hernia operations -- hernias being a common side effect of surgery -- are considerations, but not necessarily deterrents.

"Isn't that weird?" Jean says. "I sold everything I owned to come to Durham to lose weight ... [I think] If I came this far, I can take that other step."

Her motivation for wanting a Roux-en-Y (pronounced ROO-en-why), named after the Swiss surgeon Cesar Roux and the Y-shape incision made from bypassing the stomach to the small intestine, is simple.

"Women my age have been dieting and mostly failing at it all of our lives," says Jean, author of the book Fat Like Us, which chronicles the personal stories of perpetual dieters. "We don't want to live the remainder of our lives fat."

The weight-obsessed American public seems to have spoken: 24 percent of women and 17 percent of men say that they would reduce their life span by three years to be thinner, as reported in Archives of Dermatology.

"Life is so much better when you're thinner," Jean says. "Nothing aches, everything fits, doctors aren't yelling at you. The sun is shining on you."

Gut Reactions

According to the American Society of Bariatric Surgery (ASBS), 45,000 chased the sun this year by electing gastric bypass surgery, up from the 25,000 who went for it in 1995. Also known as "stomach stapling," the surgery involves stapling a portion of a patient's stomach, and then rerouting the smaller part, or pouch, to the intestines, so patients cannot overeat. The pouch, about the size of an egg, can hold about half a cup, or one to five ounces of food, compared to the 50 to 80 ounces of an unstapled stomach. But it is not a cure. Because of the limited food intake, those who undergo the surgery must eat tiny portions for the rest of their lives, and are banned forever from favorite foods like red meat, milk or sweets. Should patients cave in to such forbidden indulgences, they may feel faint, nauseous, sweaty and experience instant diarrhea -- all symptoms of a post-bypass condition known as "dumping."

It can get far, far worse. According to the National Institutes of Health, which in 1991 created the criteria for weight loss surgery patients, one-third of gastric surgery patients develop gallstones, or clumps of cholesterol and other matter that form in the gallbladder. Ten to 20 percent of weight-loss operations require follow-up operations to correct serious complications like abdominal hernias, as well as stretched stomachs and staple line breakage. Others suffer from pneumonia, infection, hair loss, blood clots (embolus), frequent vomiting, diarrhea and nutritional deficiencies because food consumption is restricted.

In the worst scenario, patients may regain all their presurgery weight or die, either on the operating room table, or from complications following surgery. The ASBS reports that three to five people out of 1,000 who undergo gastric bypasses die. But Miriam Berg, president of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination (CSWD) claims that doctors aren't honestly reporting cases where their patients die as a result of the surgery.

"We've run into some situations where the death certificate [was changed] to say someone 'died from obesity,'" Berg says. "Doctors are hush-hush about this. They learn from their mistakes, but also the public never finds out about them."

And that's part of the problem. Most gastric bypass patients don't know that the surgeons performing gastric bypasses do not take any specific "boards" or examinations testing their knowledge and skills of the actual surgery.

"Almost every surgeon does a different operation," noted Paul Ernsberger, an obesity researcher at Case Western Reserve University, in a published commentary in response to a reporter's request for his opinion on weight loss surgeries. "If the surgery was so wonderful, why are all the surgeons experimenting with different techniques?"

Many doctors are acutely aware of the risks to patients and carefully study a patient's profile before performing the operation, like Dr. Pamela Foster, a clinical assistant professor of surgery at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center for Bariatric Surgery. To ensure that she has the ideal surgical candidate, Foster sticks to a patient's Body Mass Index (BMI), which measures a patient's weight to height ratio and determines their obesity. A surgery candidate must have a BMI of 40 or above. Foster also considers the gravity of their co-morbidities, or conditions resulting from severe obesity, such as diabetes, sleep apnea and high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. She also requires patients to lose excess weight prior to the surgery so that the surgery is less risky for the patient, and is adamant about monitoring a patient post-surgery. Dr. Foster says she has never had a Roux-en-Y gastric-bypass patient die.

"Most of my patients work and have families and lives and interests," Foster says. "We have to make sure that they make it to the other side. I worry because it's such a difficult operation."

However, there are few long-term studies conducted on the outcome of gastric bypass patients, and some clinics and hospitals provide surgery patients with insufficient or no follow-up care, says Berg of the CSWD.

Star Studded

Because the surgery is so expensive -- it costs anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000 -- and because most insurance providers don't cover the surgery (they classify the operation as cosmetic rather than medically necessary), would-be patients dole out their own cash.

"It's becoming more consumer-driven," says Dr. Greg Adams, a general surgeon at Valley Medical Center in San Jose.

Adams refuses to do gastric bypasses because he "doesn't want to perform psychic surgery." He insists on gastric bypass only as a means to improve someone's health but not self-image.

"I think it's a plan of controlled starvation," he says.

For those trying in vain to lose weight by exhausting food diets and modes of exercise, it's a plan whose perceived benefits outweigh the risks. But much of the marketing campaign is led by the wrong people, Berg says. Current bypass idol, Carnie Wilson, daughter of Beach Boy Brian Wilson and former songbird for the '90s pop trio Wilson Phillips, recently trumpeted her 150-pound weight loss and new size 6 frame on the covers of People and US Weekly. The dangerous message to the yo-yo dieters of the world is this: live or die, risky or not -- if Carnie can, so can I.

But new lives rarely carry with them a 100 percent guarantee. During his homerun derby, San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds dedicated home run no. 68 to Franklin Bradley, 37, a close friend and bodyguard, who died unexpectedly from routine stomach surgery. It turned out to be a gastric bypass operation.

Weighing In

Karrie Colette, a San Jose resident, talks about her life in two eras: pre-gastric bypass surgery and post-gastric bypass surgery. Presurgery Karrie was 353 pounds -- always hungry, never satisfied, tired and overheated. Her once favorite McDonald's lunch menu: quarter-pounder, two Big Macs, SuperSized chocolate shake and large fries. Her genes automatically rubber-stamped her as overweight; her father, mother and older sister were all built that way.

Then Karrie developed a condition known as Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), which induced a gagging reflex, forcing Karrie to vomit all her meals. A friend who had the gastric bypass told her surgery might be the best option. So after researching the details, Karrie began imagining a fat-free life. On Aug. 16, 1999, at Alvarado Hospital Medical Center -- where Carnie Wilson had her surgery only a week before -- she got it. In two years, Karrie has lost 150 pounds.

Jean, on the other hand, is still thinking about her gastric bypass. She has plenty of questions for her potential attending surgeon at Duke University Hospital.

"I don't know if I'll ever go through with it," Jean says. "I'm leaving my options open. Everyone I've talked to [who has had the surgery] said they'd do it in a heartbeat."

Karrie doesn't hesitate. She's slimmer, she survived, and now, she's added years to her life span because she isn't obese anymore.

"Would I do it again?" Karrie asks. "In a heartbeat. In a heartbeat."

Health Food Junkies

He asked if I was a musician or an artist.

My answer not only horrified him, but helped us both quickly decide that I was not the person to fill his empty room for rent.

"I like to cook," I answered, quite unprepared for the outrage my hobby would inspire.

His face twisted with disgust as he vividly explained how the wonderful smells wafting from my pots and pans while cooking were all of the vitamins and nutrients being sucked out of the ingredients. He described what was left behind, my homemade creation, as nothing more than "a toxic soup."

"That's why I'm on a raw foods diet," he said proudly, adding that his housemate was into raw foodism as well. He admitted, with clear disapproval, that she had a weakness for cooked pasta, and said my fondness for preparing Italian dishes made me an especially poor candidate for the room.

Even before he began swinging from what appeared to be pull-up bars attached to the ceiling -- insisting that "most people don't play enough" -- I knew our future living together was grim. I had to excuse myself and, regardless of the scarcity of housing, let that one get away.

Author Dr. Steven Bratman, a medical doctor and acupuncturist, confesses that he gave similar speeches to countless friends and family during his years as a macrobiotic, vegan (vegetarian who eats no eggs, dairy or animal products) raw foods follower -- to name just a few of his dietary habits. Others included chewing each morsel of food 50 times and making it a rule never to eat a vegetable more than 15 minutes after picked.

Now, in his new book, "Health Food Junkies: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating," Bratman creates the term "orthorexia nervosa" as a label for those who push interest in normally healthy foods to dangerous extremes. As one who was also "seduced" by righteous eating but escaped from the damaging addiction, he wants to help others trapped by orthorexia.

"There have always been recommendations regarding the healthiest food to eat, but in recent decades the obsession over healthy eating seems to have escalated out of control. In more and more people it seems to be taking on the characteristics of an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia," Bratman writes in the introduction to his book. "However, unlike these other eating disorders, orthorexia disguises itself as a virtue."

He acknowledges that all vegetarians and vegans are not obsessive, and that eating low on the food chain can be extremely healthy. Still, Bratman warns against pushing restrictive diets to extremes.

"It's not that I don't support eating healthy food," he says. "It's only that when healthy eating becomes an obsession, it's no longer healthy."

Unlike other addictions and their complicated 12 steps, Bratman offers three stages in his book to recovering from orthorexia -- admitting the problem, understanding the causes and learning to eat without obsession. Basically he urges readers to get a life, not just a menu.

The Vice of Virtue

Doctor Bratman has enough horror stories to compete with any doctor who has worked with junkies trying to get clean. One of his patients, a raw-foodist who limited her diet to only include fruits and vegetables, fainted so frequently from protein deficiency that he decided to hospitalize her. She avoided being admitted to the hospital by vowing to eat protein-rich nuts and legumes, only to crash her car into a storefront and die a few days later.

"She is believed to have fainted while driving," Bratman says.

He tells of another woman, also a strict raw-foodist, who died in a hotel room while hiding out from the friends who were trying to put her in the hospital. Then there's the man who allowed his child to drink just four ounces of water a day so as not to over-hydrate, and created a state of severe dehydration for the boy.

Bratman acknowledges that such extreme, sensational cases are rare, and may overlap with other eating disorders such as anorexia.

"Usually orthorexia won't kill you. Its harm lies in what it does to your mind and spirit," he warns, "the way it creates a distorted and unhealthy view of life."

"Ortho" comes from the Greek, meaning straight, correct or true. He writes, "Orthorexia nervosa refers to a fixation on eating healthy food."

Bratman hasn't done clinical tests or studies, but insists he isn't trying to create a medical disorder that would belittle the serious problems involved with other eating disorders. "I invented the word orthorexia as a tease. I don't really believe it's as bad as anorexia, but the word has shock value to get people to reexamine their values," Bratman says. "It's like workaholism. Nobody thinks it's as bad as alcoholism. But like workaholism, people mistake it as a virtue."

And no one can deny that people become passionate about food. Bratman says he recently got an email from someone, married to a vegan, whose spouse is divorcing her for eating meat. He says that for many people healthy eating goes beyond just what they personally choose to consume. For some it's a lifestyle or an identity. The problem lies in when it grows into orthorexia, an obsession.

Acupuncturist and Chinese doctor Martha Benedict says that she hasn't read Health Food Junkies and isn't sure if the diets he describes are on the rise. However, she admits that she has treated patients that fit the orthorexic description.

"I think people use food inappropriately, and obsession is a common thing if you are emotionally starved," she says. "It's a safe obsession, compared with heroin addiction. But if they are looking for spiritual fulfillment in the refrigerator, they're not going to find it. I see a lot of it, but I'm in a position that I would see a lot of it. People come to me when they're having problems."

Even those who aren't working in alternative health care say that signs of devotion to health food are cropping up in their daily lives, even if they aren't the ones suffering from orthorexia.

Rebecca D'Madeiros worked in a natural foods store for years before taking a job as a health food shop manager. She says that at times it was difficult to meet the needs of shoppers at her former job, rattling off examples of patrons who refused to let the food they were purchasing touch paper or be microwaved, or those who grew extremely upset if their lunch was wrapped in to-go packaging. D'Madeiros also recalls how difficult it was to answer detailed questions about the types of vinegars and spices used in preparing dishes. But she says the most extreme case involves a woman who shops at her current store.

"She preys on every part of the store. She'll talk to produce [people] for at least a half-hour each time she comes in, usually about the stickers used, the packaging, where the fruit was grown. And the stickers we use on our produce are organic," D'Madeiros says. "Her food religion goes beyond the food itself."

D'Madeiros adds that she herself is not a mainstream, meat-and-potatoes type. She is mostly vegetarian and avoids shopping or eating where organic produce and free-range dairy aren't available. But she doesn't feel her diet is at the same intensity level as her persistent shopper.

D'Madeiros says, "For her, it's a lifetime, an obsession. She's there for two to three hours on each shopping trip."

Blame It on the Grain

One chef at a local natural foods store says that she's watched shoppers comb the shop with everything from crystals -- checking the life force of foods -- to Geiger counters. She declines to be identified for the story, for fear of offending customers, and adds that she's become "as paranoid as anybody" as she reads the newspapers about the current state of American food processing.

Yet she doesn't embark on a quest for total food purity as actively as some. Hannah Prunty remembers having the healthiest of intentions when she became a vegetarian in her early 20s. After she and her boyfriend decided to adopt a vegan diet, she says her energy levels and confidence in the quality of her food were better than ever before. But then her boyfriend began showing warning signs of what Bratman would call orthorexia. Never satisfied that his diet would be pure enough, he began getting upset at Prunty when she would eat dairy products on occasion. He became even stricter, adopting a fruitarian diet -- only eating fruits so as not to kill any entire plants for food.

"He eventually lost over 30 pounds and looked like a skeleton," Prunty says. "These diets were all about cleansing your body and he just believed them all. His friends and family were calling me, begging me to make him eat. He felt sick but thought it was only because his body was going through a cleansing process. I think he just lost touch with reality," Prunty says. "His fruitarianism became all about control, control over his body, what and when he ate. I think it was his way of feeling powerful in his life. I once wrote in my journal about eating cookies and he read it and got upset with me because he wanted me to be 'healthy,' too."

When they tried to intervene and hospitalize him, he insisted the diets weren't at fault for his illness. Prunty eventually broke up with her fruitarian partner and doesn't know much about the current state of his health or his diet.

Bratman says that the reasons for episodes like the fruitarian's meltdown aren't usually about food, but involve a number of hidden causes. In his book he lists a series of issues, including an attempt to create an illusion of total safety, a desire for complete control, covert conformity, searching for spirituality in the kitchen, food puritanism, creating an identity, and fear of other people.

Martha Benedict says that part of the intensity of food stems from the gaps it fills in modern society. "We are a spiritually bereft nation. An emotionally starved nation. A materialistically oriented nation. Other parts of our psyche are given short shrift," she says, soon adding, "since food is something we rarely go without, it's really easy to make it an object of obsession."

She adds that experimenting with diet needn't be a dangerous thing and may just be part of anyone learning more about personal identity.

"Some people try different diets as a form of coming to who they are," she says.

Yet for others, like Wiley Brooks, founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, what you eat can also lead to an identity crisis. After professing the health benefits of fasting and living on pure air, Brooks was allegedly caught leaving a 7-Eleven store munching on a hot dog and sucking down a Slurpee.

While interviewing him a while ago about a possible new product, Fresh Liquid Air in a Bottle, I asked him about the incident. He quickly explained that the air is less pure in the city and he is used to clean mountain air.

He says, "So sometimes I need to take some food." Brooks did not return recent calls.

Pyramid Scheme

Mary Foley shows up for our interview armed with copies of the suggested food pyramid and statistics showing the grim reality of the American diet. A nutrition and wellness educator, Foley hasn't dealt much with orthorexia. She spends most of her time trying to break families of their fast-food addictions, urging them to rediscover unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables. She points to statistics that show that 60 percent of adult Americans and up to 15 percent of children are overweight or obese.

"A vegetarian diet can be a very healthy way of eating. It is a plant-based diet, which is the base of our food pyramid," Foley says.

Gone are the days when the health department pushed the four basic food groups. Foley now supplies information and brochures produced by the Vegetarian Resource Group about well-balanced vegetarian and vegan diets. Even the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (June 2001) printed two studies detailing how children and even infants can be raised on healthy, thoughtfully planned vegan diets.

Foley says she has read portions of Bratman's Health Food Junkies and agrees that obsession is probably not a good dietary foundation.

"Eating healthy foods isn't enough. It's also having a healthy attitude toward eating," she says. "You should be consuming your food; it shouldn't be consuming you."

Buddhists and Big Macs

Dr. Bratman says that one of his patients tried diet after diet, but she kept getting a reoccurring infection. After months of not seeing her, she finally reported back that she had cured herself with a "beer and pizza diet."

She happily reported no problems, insisting, "Loosening up on food is what cured me."

Bratman came to a similar realization when he decided, like another friend, that "rather than eat my sprouts alone, it would be better for me to share a pizza with some friends."

The reformed health food junkie adds that while working at a nursing home, few people on their deathbeds were worried about eating too much ice cream or not enough kale.

People like Michelle Oppen don't see any conflict between veganism and leading a healthy social life. Oppen, a 28-year-old mostly vegan, says she doesn't see herself as an extremist at all.

"Dairy doesn't really agree with me and I don't feel I was meant to eat animals. But I think I support everyone choosing what to eat for themselves," she says. "I'm not preaching, and encourage people to eat whatever they feel comfortable with."

Oppen says that while mainstream America seems to be growing more tolerant of her diet, she often encounters confusion over her vegan requests.

"I was in Florida recently for a conference and I went to get pizza and ordered it without cheese," Oppen says. "The waitress had a hard time comprehending that and said she didn't know what to put on it without cheese."

Oppen does confess to a sense of guilt when eating processed foods or having something with dairy in it, a type of guilt, or lack thereof, that Bratman addresses in one memorable story of his book. He tells in detail of the time the Karmapa, an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism, came to visit a Buddhist household here in the U.S. The residents of the devout home went to great pains to prepare a whole-grain vegan lunch complete with fresh-pressed carrot juice, only to have it waved away when the Karmapa arrived. According to the translator, the Karmapa made an announcement that shocked his vegan entourage.

"This man, this Karmapa, believed to be an embodiment of wisdom and a fount of understanding, capable of miracles on earth and of consciously reincarnating after death, this divine figure asked to go to McDonald's."

Bratman recounts, "It appeared that he was inordinately fond of Big Macs."

Orthorexia Self-Test

Dr. Bratman has created a 10-question quiz to determine whether a person's relationship to health food is a virtue or a vice. Each "yes" answer scores one point on the orthorexia self-test.

1. Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food? (For four hours, give yourself two points.)

2. Do you plan tomorrow's food today?

3. Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?

4. Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?

5. Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?

6. Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?

7. Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food? Do you look down on others who don't?

8. Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?

9. Does your diet socially isolate you?

10. When you are eating the way you are supposed to, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?

"If you answer yes to two or three of these questions, you have at least a touch of orthorexia. A score of four or more means that you are in trouble," Bratman writes. "And if all these statements apply to you, you really need help. You don't have a life -- you have a menu."

Geek Underworld

Like every other nerdy outcast in various cities across the U.S., I went to see Terry Zwigoff's flick Ghost World. It was billed as a film for people like me and my friends: disgruntled, anti-corporate, obsessed with obscure topics, smart but not in a trendy or fashionable way. And unlike the usual brought-to-you-by-Microsoft summer blockbuster, Ghost World did in fact make a concerted effort to explore what it's like to rebel -- however quietly -- against the ubiquitous propaganda known as American consumer culture.

I shuffled out of the theater in a post-narrative glow as I recollected the movie's romantic geek hero and his beautiful young protege, redeemed by their mutual appreciation for obscure underground culture. But it just wasn't enough. Ghost World's characters were isolated, tragic, and ultimately doomed to lonely, loveless futures. The radical hacker in me was left wanting more rebellion, more about how dangerous and wild outcasts can be when they actually get together and form communities.

Lucky for me, a real-life geek rebel was in town last week, someone I couldn't imagine would ever be contented to keep her strange and compelling ideas on the down-low. Cecilia Tan, the notorious science fiction/erotica author, had come through San Francisco on a book tour for her latest novel, "The Velderet" (Circlet Press). I caught up with her at a coffee shop in the Mission to chat about science fiction, nerd social life, and of course, sex.

"I was always in the geek social class but wasn't aware of it as a tribal affiliation until after college," Cecilia said with her signature deadpan irony. An intense, dark-haired tomboy with wire-rim glasses, Cecilia grew up in classic geek style, "without any friends." Later, when she graduated and moved to Boston, she discovered that geekhood didn't mean being solitary. She started subscribing to various Boston-area mailing lists and realized "we have actual social lives, but not built with the structures that came out of in-crowd cliques and things like that." Later, Cecilia founded Circlet Press (, which is devoted to subversive, erotic and queer science fiction.

"The Velderet," a tale of heroic sexual rebels on an alien world threatened by invasion from a hostile race, is the perfect antidote to a movie like Ghost World. Rather than consigning its characters to loneliness and erotic futility, Cecilia offers a smart (and titillating) look at how underground communities form. Without giving away too much of the plot, I'll just say that it's about the strategic alliance between kinky sex adventurers, a network engineer, and some aliens. Because certain kinds of sex and long-term friendships have been outlawed on planet Bellonia, our tech-savvy heroes are forced to find sneaky ways to meet each other in cyberspace, using code words to identify each other and finding little-used parts of common networking programs to signal to each other when they're logged in.

Cecilia joked that the book is all about "how the kinky people are able to become heroes and save the world." But it's also about geek community, a group of people drawn together because they feel rejected by so-called normal society. This aspect of the book was inspired by Cecilia's real-life experiences as a sexual outlaw: she's part of the bdsm community, and is in a long-term non-monogamous relationship. "I always knew that monogamy was going to be a problem for me," she explained, "and what I discovered about the geek social set was that a lot of processing had already been done about polyamory [having more than one partner] and serial monogamy. People were in the same social set as their exes and they stayed friends."

In "The Velderet," characters are persecuted by the government for engaging in forbidden activities via cybersex. I wonder if Cecilia worries about similar things happening now in the Ashcroft Era of increased Internet censorship and surveillance. "Every new technology that comes along, people will find a way to use it for sex," Cecilia replied simply. "[Government regulation] can't stop people from taking pictures of themselves and posting them to their own pages."

Pausing to think for a moment, Cecelia continued, "Conservatives see sex as a source of disorder. But why can't we see it as a source of social order instead? Sex can be a building force, it can bind a community together. In subcultures, you can see this organizing force. You're not truly liberated if you're not free to indulge the fantasies and types of sexuality you enjoy."

And you're not free if you hide from mainstream culture in an isolated fantasy world, like the characters do in Ghost World. You have to find other people like yourself, to find a social life, even if that social life doesn't look like what the skinny white people on Friends have. Outcasts create their own forms of social organization. And who knows what that could lead to? Maybe geeks could help save the world.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who wants to form a community of geek perverts. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

Sex Toys Only a Geek Could Love

After a spending a few psychotic days at DefCon, the hacker convention in Las Vegas, I returned to my office to find a hefty package waiting for me from Blowfish ( Inside, I discovered a low-amperage, high-voltage generator, one large, unipolar electrode, and one small, bipolar "shield." Various Y connectors had been tossed in for good measure. Were these components for some kind of robot? Did I need an oscilloscope? What's the point of a low-amp generator anyway?

To truly comprehend the meaning of my special delivery, however, I had to do something no self-respecting techno-geek would ever do: read the instruction booklet that lay nestled beneath the generator in its bed of Styrofoam peanuts. The cover of the thick pamphlet read, "Guide to Electric Sex."

This was a collection of electronic components that only a geek could love -- quite literally. Created by Folsom Electric Company for the devious mad scientists at Blowfish, these electric sex toys are an underground fetish phenomenon that appeals to the sorts of people whose first sex fantasies were inspired by science fiction. I'll confess I'm one of those people. I mean, who wouldn't get hot watching Barbarella stuck inside a machine that rips off her clothes and gives her seemingly hundreds of orgasms? Or watching Julie Christie being molested by an A.I. in Demon Seed (a.k.a. Proteus Generation)? And what about that part in the book Brain, by Robin Cook, where the mad doctors "condition" their victims using shocks delivered via electrodes buried in the pleasure centers of their brains? And don't even get me started on all the robot sex in anime videos.

Let's face it: there's something sexy about the idea of dosing people with pleasure using machines. We live in a culture that adores technology, that sucks up alternating current as if it were a drug. And given our total dependence on electricity, it makes sense that eventually somebody would start associating electricity with the kind of raging, brutal, uncontrollable vulnerability that we call erotic desire.

Needing something intensely -- the way we need electricity -- produces a fear of losing it that is akin to arousal. We fear blackouts the way we fear being abandoned by a lover, and that fear creates the same kind of frantic, helpless lust. What if we had a blackout at the office on deadline, resulting in chaos and economic doom? The thought inspires a tiny tingle of terror not unlike the feeling you get when the object of your desire is lost, then returns with a shocking kiss.

Alright, enough philosophizing. Looking at that generator made me want to electrocute the hell out of myself. I wanted to be like the porn version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, becoming my own depraved experimental subject.

Setting the thing up was as satisfying as building my own computer, except a lot easier. There was no CPU to install, no exposed motherboard to pore over, no concern that the various devices involved would mess one another up. I used my primitive knowledge of electrical engineering -- how to make a circuit, for example -- to figure out how to make my muscles tense up using the unipolar electrode with the bipolar shield. Actually, I could use the shield on its own, since it created its own circuit.

I ran the flat shield over my arms and hands, changing the intensity and frequency of the current on the generator so that the sensations ranged from throbbing to biting, burning to seething. Using the electrode with the shield, I created circuits that ran through my thighs, my lower arm, my belly. (You have to keep the current below your waist, because if it runs through your chest it can cause a heart attack.)

For obvious reasons, it was titillating to have a device that combined two of my passions: sexual and scientific experimentation. And the sensations it produced were certainly unlike anything I'd ever inflicted on myself before. But it wasn't technically sexual. I found the device inflamed my imagination far more than my body. I liked the idea that I could use it to make somebody's muscles move against their will. And I was very keen to play electrodes and dials with another hapless victim in my lab.

Later that night my dreams were full of bodies penetrated by wires, and skin that burned my tongue with electrical current when I licked it. Back in the 19th century, our pal Freud wrote that everybody harbors the unconscious desire to have sex with their parents, mostly because they are our earliest sources of pleasure and physical comfort. But more than 100 years after Freud, I think it's obvious that our unconscious desires have mutated. These days, machines power our fantasies. And electricity has become a sex toy.

Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who did eventually invite someone up to the lab. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper. Find out more at

Superbabe Vacation

Some people might describe D. Tim Thomas, the founder of Supermodel Vacations, as a pimp. But to his client Dean Benzie, Thomas is a coach, a guide and a visionary.

"He is truly a priest among men," Benzie writes in his glowing Supermodel Vacations testimonial.

Last spring Benzie set off for Europe on a 10-day supermodel tour, during which he stayed in five-star hotels, dined in the finest restaurants and had his own "supermodel-looking" woman to take care of all other needs. Now, in a phone interview from Knoxville, Tenn., he says that the trip changed his life--and his marriage--forever.

"In retrospect, I have found that this was a necessary phase of my evolution towards being a truly free thinker. The older and deeper your fears, the more it may 'hurt' a little, but the reward is personal expansion," Benzie says. "I am now hooked on the 'pain' of breaking free. My reward is life-changing personal growth ... I feel more like the man I was born to be but never knew how until I met Dennis [D. Tim Thomas]."

Unlike other soul-searching vacations, like trekking through Tibet or meditating at some Oprah-endorsed spa retreat, Thomas' Supermodel Vacations aims to help guys like Benzie achieve spiritual fulfillment with the help of their very own lovely female escorts.

"From a man's perspective. Well, I think of myself as a gentleman, so from a gentleman's perspective, this is one of the funnest, coolest things you can imagine," Benzie says. "I got everything I was looking for and a lot more."

Benzie and his wife of 16 years, Becky, have nothing but praise for Thomas' supermodel tours, and both say it's done wonders for the relationship between them and among the entire family--they are the proud parents of 9-year-old twins.

"I heard about it from Tim and Dean, and I saw the website and thought it was interesting," Becky Benzie says. "It was a mutual decision and I encouraged him to do it."

Dean Benzie, a technical training specialist for a gym equipment company, says that whereas before he was feeling burned out and weighed down by his fears, he now feels like he's free.

"When I tell guys about this, the response is really positive, of course, but a lot of them are like, 'What can I get for $5,000?'" Benzie says. "But that's not what it's about. It's a way for guys to get in touch with themselves."

Benzie adds, "A lot of women, they at first say [Thomas] is a pimp. But then they realize it's more of a matchmaking service. Although, I suppose, from a married perspective, it's different."

Where the Girls Are

One woman in a Supermodel Vacations ad strikes a come-hither pose, wearing only a tiny, thigh-baring tank dress that clings to every curve. The photograph doesn't show her actual face, but presumably she is one of the supportive European "supermodels" waiting to help men along on their quest toward fulfillment.

"Are you shy? Can't figure out this whole 'girl' thing?" the advertisement asks. "Let me take you to a world where everything you ever dreamed of in a woman comes true."

Thomas looks out from another photo, sporting a swanky bow tie and self-assured smile.

"I personally take you to Europe first class & put you into the arms of a super babe! who will absolutely fulfill every fantasy you ever thought of & a few you haven't!" the advertisement continues. "I'll be your personal coach, guide, protector, valet, counselor, and teacher."

Even before Thomas begins describing his latest business venture, he stands out from the crowd. At the coffee shop we meet for an interview, he holds open doors for women and politely weaves past several aging, Teva-wearing hippies.

Thomas, looking sharp in his black button-up shirt, crisp olive-green suit and bright yellow sunglasses, says that he has actually been doing his supermodel tours for three years, mainly for friends or acquaintances. But only last fall he realized he could transform it into a business venture. So far he estimates he's done about 22 trips with men, but explains that some guys have gone four or five times.

The self-described world traveler, who says he had "been around the world four times" before he stopped counting, already runs two companies, one designing the "World's Best Yellow Page Ads" as well as a web design company in Holland. He says that on one of his many trips to Northern Europe he noticed that many European women don't only date equally beautiful men.

"I'm putting guys in a position that they don't have a chance at in this country," he says. "In Northern Europe, often the most beautiful women are with total geeks. And these are educated women with class, with the best social graces in the world."

Thomas hopes that what began as a way to thrust his cubicle-dwelling workaholic friends into a jet-set world brimming with beautiful women can become a profitable business venture. Shorter vacations begin at $25,000, but he's much more supportive of guys splurging on the more deluxe $125,000 or $175,000 fantasy tour packages.

And, according to the raving testimonials of his clients, some boys are eager to invest in fantasy vacations.

"Let me tell you how my life has changed since I vacationed with Dennis Thomas. Here, when a woman identifies you as a single male with a good income, they cannot see you for who you are. They see you only as a pigeon to be plucked! Her needs are most important, and she is not looking for love, she is looking for a way out of her own daily struggle," Kenny Lampton, one of Thomas' clients, writes. "Dennis has weeded out this element. He has found the best of the best. I did not have to waste time finding the 'hidden treasures.' I would like to thank Dennis Thomas and his staff for understanding how important my time is. [He] made every minute count. Opened my mind and changed my life!"

Spiritual Supermodels

Thomas says that the original concept for Supermodel Vacations had nothing to do with women or sex. He initially envisioned it more as a makeover vacation for geeks.

"My first idea was I was going to teach guys manners, social graces, how to dress with style," Thomas says earnestly. "But a bunch of my worldly friends said, 'Get to the point. These guys want dates.' So I thought, why not put these beautiful girls and average guys together?"

Now Thomas' website,, still reflects his hopes for the guys to achieve personal transformations, but also makes it very clear that European women will help very closely every step of the way.

"It brings me so much happiness when I see a guy who has spent his whole life dreaming about a girl that is as beautiful as the one I put him with," Thomas writes. "The real fruits of your labors await you on your first Supermodel Vacation."

Men chosen after Thomas' interview process, which he says is aimed at screening out jerks, then surf the web and choose the type of girl they're looking for before booking their flights. (Thomas says the most popular look is Baywatch-inspired, with guys requesting their own Pamela Anderson Lee).

"I don't post photos of the actual girls on my site because they change over constantly. It's not like the Russian bride services that have had the same girls up forever," Thomas says. "But I get them a doppelganger, a 90 percent look-alike, of their dream girl."

On the $125,000 tour, for example, European women companions arrive the day the guys step off the first-class flight from the U.S. to Amsterdam. If the match is acceptable to both parties, each signs a waiver form that they will spend their time with their companion throughout the trip. They then ride on a luxury bus with the other happy couples to enjoy the sights, foods and hotels of Europe.

"You stay in only five-star hotels, castles or chateaux in Brussels, Paris, Normandy," Thomas says. "The guys even get to ride in a race car and I snap pictures of them afterward, each with his medal and his girl all over him. It really completes the James Bond adventure."

The company website makes numerous references to promising that "nothing less than the absolute satisfaction of our client's dreams are adequate." Yet Thomas says he never asks any of the women to have sex with their male companions.

"I don't ask these girls to have sex, I just say that it's up to them. But these are European women; they view sex differently," Thomas says.

He quickly adds, "I don't hire escorts or girls that were prostitutes. They all sign legal waivers saying they've never done that. So my girls were never prostitutes, they are just good, clean girls who wanna have good, clean fun. Which in my opinion involves sex."

Although Thomas won't say specifically how much the girls are paid for their time and energies, he says they are "well-compensated."

"Their expenses and bills for the trip are paid, and on top of that, whatever it costs the girls to be away from their jobs. We match the salary of work they're missing. You have to remember, the girls aren't rich, but the guys are."

If the match isn't satisfactory, his business associates in Amsterdam are there to help and will even send out another supermodel if necessary.

"If the girl doesn't work out, she's on a bullet train back to Amsterdam," Thomas vows. "The longest a client is going to go without a supermodel 'Bond girl' is four hours."

Model Marriages

Tim Thomas says he already has two gentlemen booked for his next European Supermodel Vacation, scheduled to depart at at the beginning of June. He has four more spots to fill and expects a reporter for Playboy to partake in the adventure.

Thomas is even teaming up with a man who recently landed a 20-year-old Russian bride to add a Supermodel Marriage Vacation tour for those looking for a more serious relationship.

Dean Benzie says he would definitely consider another supermodel tour, but he and his wife, Becky, say he won't need the marriage trip anytime soon. They say his trip last spring has reinvigorated Dean's life and their 16-year-old marriage.

"It has had such a positive effect on him. He went into the Navy when he was 17 years old, and he had that military mentality. And when we took time off before it was always to visit relatives. This was the first time in his life he had the opportunity to do something for himself. And because we're so honest with each other, we pretty much knew what was going on at all times."

Apparently, Benzie called his wife every day while he was gone to update her on his adventures with his supermodel.

When asked if she would go on her own supermodel babe vacation, Becky is far less enthusiastic.

"Um, maybe I'd go," she says. "It sure sounded like he had a lot of fun. But I think it's just what he needed at the time."

Butt-Kicking Babes

She unloads two shotguns while swinging from the ceiling on an archaic, fraying rope. She wipes blood from her lip as carelessly as if it was smeared lipstick. And throughout the preview for the latest tough-chick action movie, Tomb Raider, Angelina Jolie, starring as video game heroine Lara Croft, walks strong, talks tough and fights foes in a feminized version of Rambo meets Die Hard. Unlike her cinematic male counterparts, Jolie manages to pummel her enemies in the skimpiest of shorts, wearing weapon-holders that look more like garters than holsters. When she flirts with death, her sexuality is a key piece of her arsenal.

"I could never kill you," one slick gent says weakly, with the sincerity of a stranger on a bar stool.

"I didn't say you could kill me," she banters back coyly, eyebrows raised and plump lips pursed. "I said you could try."

Jolie's sex-kitten Croft in Tomb Raider, headed for theaters this summer, leaps into action as the latest addition to an undeniable trend in the evoution of today's action hero, the butt-kicking babe. Other recent films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Charlie's Angels and The Matrix have all featured women who can not only hold their own, but prevail in combat. On television, female heroes have gone the way of undead-dueling Buffy the Vampire Slayer, genetically engineered Dark Angel, historic cult-hit Xena: Warrior Princess or cartoon animated superhero trio the Power Puff Girls. Movies and TV, combined with video games like "Tomb Raider," have launched a full-frontal, multimedia assault with visions of women warriors dominating male and female villains.

Producers wouldn't continue cranking out female action heroes if audience response wasn't overwhelmingly positive. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has been nominated for 10 Oscars and recently beat out Roberto Begnini's Life Is Beautiful as the top-grossing foreign language film in America--an amazing feat for a movie with subtitles. Buffy put the then fledgling Warner Brothers Television Network (WB) on the map when it began in 1997, and now the show is caught in the middle of a major custody battle with several networks vying for the viewership of the vampire slayer's millions of fans. Shopping malls and schools across America show that beloved butt-kicking preschoolers, the Power Puff Girls, are enjoying enormous success both on the air and in marketing merchandise.

Not everyone is thrilled with this trend, and many critics are calling for the heroines to drop their weapons and put on more clothes. Surprisingly, the loudest complaints aren't coming from conservatives urging women to trade their weapons for baking utensils, but rather from feminists and liberal media watchdog groups concerned about what they believe to be damaging sexist portrayals of violent female heroines.

"I am awash in a Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer glow. I have seen women kick butt in Charlie's Angels and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and, in my heart of hearts, I know this much is true: It's good for the economy," Margaret Finnegan writes in a widely celebrated article, "Sold! The Illusion of Independence" (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 1, 2001).

Finnegan argues that, unlike battling the June Cleaver image, butt-kicking babes are much harder for feminists to fight.

She continues, "The commercial embrace of kick-butt girls breeds a less obvious threat to women's struggle for equality: the illusion of equality. Feminism has fewer enemies."

Since Finnegan's article, other critics have stepped forward to caution against today's heroines as scantily clad, over-sexualized male fantasies who promote barbaric shows of strength rather than women's equality--and may even be encouraging violence against women.

So why do I love these butt-kicking babes?

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Danger

Within the first 15 minutes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, leading ladies Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jiao Long Yu, or Jen (Ziyi Zhang), engage in a beautiful battle over a stolen sword, the Green Destiny. They spar with both strength and impeccable form, running up walls, gliding over rooftops and twisting with the grace of dancers.

Later in the film the two women square off again, this time in a much more brutal battle. Yeoh boasts the benefit of years of experience as a woman warrior; Jen holds the edge of a young prodigy with fighting spirit. They use intellect and emotion as well as strength and skill, but both fights are clearly shows of strength.

James Lull, a professor of communication studies at San Jose State University, says he loved the film and its female stars.

"Personally, I love it. There's nothing more wonderful than a strong woman, one who is strong physically and mentally," Lull says. "But at one level there's a concern about any kind of butt-kicking--that there's a certain level of danger with it. We tend to glorify power, success, competition, all of the things that feed into butt-kicking. And there's a certain overall negative consequence of the way we glorify violence."

Lull has seen a bevy of international films and says that whereas European films have found ways to portray deep, complex emotional conflict, too many movies--especially American ones--rely on WWF-inspired portrayals of conflict.

"In America it's all about knock them down, kick their ass. That discredits the consumer, it takes away deeper emotional interpretation," Lull says. "We have to understand that [the concept of] butt-kicking girls reduces them to this visible male conflict. Football, Arnold, Rambo--there are media archetypes in our cultural memory in which male-dominated conflict leading to violence is celebrated. Now it has spilled over into the realm of female stars."

He admits that the belief in women's ability to conquer is nothing new. But instead of showing women as manipulators, like using The Rules to get a man and passive-aggressive guilt trips to control him, the new heroes are just plain aggressive.

"Here come the girls, they're powerful, they can be just as stupid as the guys, and with physical violence they've fallen to the level of males," Lull says. "This physical expression for women is a liberation of the body but an imprisoning of the spirit."

Rather than sword-wielding women, Lull says he worships Mary Tyler Moore as a leading butt-kicking babe.

"She could talk fast, think fast. She was not the traditional woman, and had a strong, commanding personality," Lull coos. "She didn't need to resort to violence. She showed competence and confidence."

Besides Mary, he says, many of his female heroines stem from the African American community. Not just Pam Grier as Foxy Brown, but women like Sarah Vaughn, Bessie Smith and Janet Jackson all get high marks from Lull because they helped give voice to black women's experiences.

"Black women have been butt-kicking by necessity," Lull says. "It's not superhuman, just a matter of everyday life."

Cleavage and Cleavers

Martial arts powerhouse Michelle Yeoh has starred in countless movies other than supernatural epic Crouching Tiger, including Hong Kong's answer to Charlie's Angels, The Heroic Trio, Jackie Chan's Supercop, and Tomorrow Never Dies, with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. But her most direct onscreen statement about women warriors comes from an obscure 1994 import, Wing Chun, a film about a legendary female martial artist.

During the film, a sleazy male villain mocks Yeoh's capabilities.

"Men are better than women, except at having babies," he sneers. "Therefore I am certain to beat you, and afterwards you can go home and get on with having your babies."

The diminutive Yeoh delivers her response, without a word, in a swift series of kicks that leave him a whimpering pile.

Critics say the trouble is plenty of butt-kicking women on the screen are ultimately most concerned with being sexy, finding a man who can make their lives complete, and settling down. They say that women heroines are less concerned with achieving female liberation than satisfying male fantasy.

Patty Miller, who researches kids and the media for Oakland-based Children Now, worries that contemporary butt-kicking heroines teach young girls that their appearance and sex appeal should be top priority. Children Now used to function as a television watchdog research group, but has recently expanded to studying movies, teen magazines, music videos and video games.

"I think that in the last few years we've started to see a lot more women portrayed as protagonists. But they are violent protagonists," Miller says. "Media are offering girls much more strong images of women, but also women who are often highly sexualized."

Miller cites Tomb Raider's Lara Croft as an example of the violent, sexual and scantily clad heroine. In December, Children Now released a report which found that nearly half of all top-selling video games in the United States contain unhealthy messages for girls, including unrealistic body image--tiny waists supporting unusually large breasts--as well as violent and provocative behavior and very little clothing.

Miller adds that many video game heroines have a disturbing habit of sighing, as if with sexual pleasure, during violent battles.

"I think it can be very confusing to young women--we want to see girls and women portrayed as strong and powerful, not strong and highly sexual," Miller says. "The message now is that it's OK to be strong and assertive, but you better be sexual and attractive."

Children Now hasn't published an official study, but it is conducting research about television and girls' body image. Miller says that two-thirds of young women want to look like their favorite TV characters, and one-third of those surveyed reported "altering themselves" to resemble the stars.

"These are strong messages to kids about who they should be and what they should look like," Miller says.

For example, Charlie's Angels starred rail-thin Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu as the legendary crime-fighting trio who work for a mysterious millionaire with a speakerphone fetish. In scene after scene they pummel villains, managing to look sexy in stylish outfits from trim-fitting, leather-laden wardrobes.

In a recent discussion with sixth graders at Spring Hill Elementary in Santa Cruz, many of the girls expressed mixed feelings about the popular action movie. All of the students who saw it said they liked it, but many girls felt that the Angels showed more skin than necessary.

"They could also be bad role models. Little girls would think they have to look like that," 12-year-old Amanda says. "Or that they have to be really skinny to be strong."

McWimps to Women Warriors

Before completely turning on today's butt-kicking babes, critics need to consider where they're coming from and remember the hordes of horrible female characters who have come before them.

In Thelma & Louise, considered a turning point in the realm of tough-chick movies, two friends escape an oppressively small town, one of them leaving behind an abusive husband. They go on a crime spree that includes shooting a would-be rapist in Texas and blowing up the truck of a lecherous, tongue-wagging driver, and even passive Thelma gets assertive after getting "laid proper" by a sexy young thief, played by Brad Pitt. But their liberation is so frenzied and unstable that they opt for what appears to be a suicidal dive off a cliff.

"Their revenge is neither intelligent nor focused. Naturally, they are punished for their adventure--they go over the cliff in freeze-frame," writes author Susan Isaacs in her book, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women are Really Doing on Page and Screen.

Isaacs begins her book with a chapter titled, "I am woman, hear me roar ... About how I've been abused, misused, violated, and discriminated against," in which she slices through female characters with a respectable lack of mercy.

"Oh, sure, we talk a good game: Assertiveness. Power. Take back the night. Just do it. After all, we've been through a television revolution in women's rights in the last 30-odd years," Issacs says. "Except even after all the fireworks, speeches and marches, our female icons seem to me a pretty pathetic lot."

The book lays out in gruesome detail examples of past portrayals of women, who are often reduced to stereotypes as helpless, weak and in need of a good man. Isaacs also argues that intelligent, sexy women in film are often shown as psychotic and evil, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

"Brilliant women, erotic women, scheming women and powerful women are so threatening by virtue of the simple fact that they exist that they cannot be allowed to live," Isaacs says. "The message to men was: Stick with your lukewarm wife. Hot sex with a free woman is perilous. The message to everyone was: Bad things happen to strong women."

Fatal Attraction may have lobbied against extramarital affairs, but it also taught that intelligent, sexy career women are a threat to marriage, children--and even the family pet.

However, butt-kicking babes have provided a portrayal of strong, sexy women who fight for good rather than use all their energy to win the object of their affections, or obsessions. Action heroines are also very different from the women portrayed as strong in many "chick flicks."

Relationships among the Power Puffs and the women of Crouching Tiger, Buffy and even the Angels are quite different from those of films like Where the Heart Is, last year's much-marketed tear-jerker starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd. Heart's women are both abused by various sleazy men and seem to gain their strong status by how much horrible treatment they've endured. Their friendship grows as they experience abandonment (in the cruelest of all places--a small-town Wal-Mart), infidelity and domestic violence at the hands of scumball guys.

Isaacs calls this phenomenon the "hero-martyr," a celebration of those women who are abused but are morally above striking back.

It's not that there haven't been butt-kicking women in the past. Hong Kong cinema has long featured women in martial arts movies, including Pei Pei Cheng, a legendary star who came out of retirement to play aging criminal Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger.

In the United States most female action stars have been more campy than credible. Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, Electra Women and DynaGirl were fun to watch but difficult to take very seriously.

And for every cartoon that features female action heroes, such as Wonder Woman or the Power Puff Girls, there are a dozen Polly Purebreds, the helpless canine damsel in distress from Underdog who was constantly crying for help from her caped superhero.

It seems critic Isaacs' prime example of the weakling female character, which she calls the wimpette, is TV lawyer Ally McBeal.

"Ally McBeal is a litigator far longer on legs than brains," Isaacs writes. "McBeal proves you can send a girl to college, but not even seven years of higher education can stay her from doing what comes naturally--trying to catch a man. ... Put a woman in a CEO's chair, give her a prestigious profession, then let her act like a dumb broad."

What Women Want

The wimpettes of the past and present may fuel the popularity of butt-kicking babes like Buffy and the crime-fighting Power Puffs, but critics say the babes are just a result of good marketing geared toward selling what advertisers think women want.

"From Nike to Gatorade, American advertisers are sold on the image of independent, resourceful, kick-butt girls," Finnegan writes in the Los Angeles Times.

Her article makes solid arguments about mass marketing's prostitution for profits.

"During the 1910s, advertisers routinely pirated slogans from the women's suffrage movement. Women "voted" for toothpaste, soup, crackers and dubious medical elixirs long before they elected political candidates," she writes. "The revival of feminism in the 1960s and '70s prompted a similar appropriation of feminist rhetoric."

Virginia Slims, poster child for this with its "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" campaign, has recently shifted to a newer pseudo-liberated slogan, "Find Your Voice."

While she acknowledges that butt-kicking babes allow for a greater variety of female characters, Finnegan argues that they are ultimately a threat to feminism and women's equality.

"Feminism has few greater enemies," she says of the kick-butt girls and their illusion of equality. "It breeds complacency. Worse yet, it implies that feminism is obsolete. Who needs it? Girls can do anything. They can be anything. I've seen it on TV so it must be true."

Other critics of butt-kicking heroines take the dangers they bring even further, proposing they may ultimately fuel violence against women.

"For if women can beat down men in the movies, how long will it be until the reverse becomes perfectly acceptable--first in the movies, and then in real life?" Gina Arnold asks in an article for Salon (Jan. 22, 2001).

However, violence against women has been a longtime reality for many women, long before the butt-kicking babes came along. Statistics show that up to 25 percent of college-age women have been sexually assaulted, and many of those attacks came long before the current crop of female heroines.

Rage Against the Man

Bettina aptheker, professor of women's studies at UC-Santa Cruz, says that she remembers the audience response to Thelma & Louise as clearly as the film itself.

"The women in the theater cheered when they blew up the truck," Aptheker says, "because so many women have shared that experience of being harassed and honked at. The movies, the pop culture, taps into women's feelings--the rage--and it can be cathartic."

Beyond mere marketing, she feels it's this rage that's fueling the explosion of butt-kicking heroines.

Aptheker has worked for decades with classes in women's studies and self-defense and says that many women come to those classes not only hurt, but angry.

"One of the things that comes up in self-defense is the hurt, the rage, as women are kicking ass, or I should say, using physical force," she continues. "We're so conditioned not to express anger that many women find it difficult. One woman in class couldn't do it for a long time and she finally told me, 'I don't believe I have a self to defend.'"

Aptheker believes it's women's rage that made Thelma & Louise, Fried Green Tomatoes (with its Towanda car-smashing scene) and Crouching Tiger such box office successes.

"We should never underestimate how angry women are," she warns, "and how little avenues exist for expression."

Aptheker says that while self-defense classes teach physical maneuvering, two-thirds of each series emphasize verbal sparring, being assertive, saying no and being verbally aggressive if necessary. Since many rapes are acquaintance rapes, instructors see self-defense as more than physical training.

"We do a lot of counseling. You don't want to strike out randomly with anger. You want to channel the rage," Aptheker says.

When asked if the butt-kicking babes are teaching women false lessons about equality, the longtime feminist doesn't seem too concerned.

"I don't think butt-kicking babes create an illusion of equality. If anything else, it reestablishes the existing inequality," she says. "You know you can't slay vampires. You know you'd be arrested by police--probably by a male cop."

In her book, Tapestries of Life, Aptheker devotes a chapter to imagination and fantasy. She explores the existence of women warriors and folklore about them in various cultures, including Chinese, numerous African and Caribbean traditions, and details how butt-kicking women have been in legends for centuries.

Hanging behind the desk in her women's studies department office is a full-color, signed photo of Xena, weapon in hand, surrounded by flames. It reads, "Bettina, Intro to Fem rocked my world! Battle On, Xena."

"No, Xena didn't really take my class," Aptheker laughs. "It was a gift from my daughter's partner."

Defense of Butt-Kicking Babes

During my television-addicted childhood, I often went to bed terrified for my safety after watching women victimized on primetime TV. After watching Halloween, I began building walls of stuffed animals up to the top of my bunk bed each night to ward off potential serial killers and stalkers.

When I began studying martial arts nearly four years ago, a former boyfriend was appalled by the thrill I received from practicing roundhouse kicks, elbow jabs and punches to the solar plexus.

"Why do you want to do that?" he finally asked, with a mixture of confusion and disgust. "It's so violent!"

Several weeks later, after wrestling with the image of myself as a violent bully, I ended up locked out of a friend's apartment in the middle of the night. While walking past a group of 20 men hanging out on a quiet, dark corner, drinking 40-ouncers from paper bags, my first thought wasn't "What could they do to me?" but "What could I do to them?"

It was then that I realized what training in Tae Kwon Do, a Korean martial art, had given me. I never have had the privilege of living without the fear of being a victim, but martial arts has taught me that I am much more than a walking target. And that, if need be, even the littlest women can kick some serious ass.

There's plenty of violence in television and movies already, but for me, women as more than victims are a refreshing change. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon says that he created super-strength Buffy as a reaction to female victims in horror movies. Whedon wanted to show a pretty, petite, intelligent blonde who was pummeling evil rather than being victimized by it. "It's a horrible double standard to have male action heroes and not female action heroes," Buffy co-executive producer Marti Nixon says.

Buffy and the other butt-kicking babes may be flawed heroines, but even teen magazines like Seventeen show that they're changing the ways young women think. I remember countless adolescent nightmares about being stalked by serial killers; the young women surveyed in an issue about dreams said they most often dreamt that they were Buffy, slaying vampires and demons.

Women wielding weapons may not be ideal in the films and television shows of a violence-free world. Until such a world exists, I would much rather watch more woman warriors kicking butt and fewer quivering, helpless waifs crying for help any day.


In ancient Israel, farmers brought offerings of wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates and olives to the Temple in Jerusalem. "Food is a source of connection provided by God," says Ramona Rubin, a soft-spoken environmental educator. "It's the manna that sustains; in that sense, the table is the altar."

Rubin is trying to educate Jewish consumers on what she considers to be a serious recent threat to their health and to their faith: the dangers of consuming genetically engineered food. The former cultural ecology student represents a growing number of people within the Jewish community who have religious objections to genetically engineered food. Their concerns are driving a national debate over what stance Jews should take.

"GE contradicts the spirit of creation -- there are definite reasons for concern," she says.

Gene Genies

Genetic engineering, commonly known as GE, is the practice of altering the genetic blueprints of plants and animals to create new varieties of foods and seeds. In the United States, over 60 million acres of GE crops are being cultivated, including 40 percent of the nation's soybean crop and 25 percent of its corn. As much as 70 percent of the processed food currently found in American supermarkets -- including infant formula, corn chips, margarine, ice cream and ready-made meals -- contains genetically engineered ingredients. (In Europe, government officials have largely rejected biotechnology's introduction into their nation's food supply.)

Genetic engineering works like this: Genes from nonrelated species, such as insect, fish or human genes, are inserted into those of plants to enhance growth rates or reduce the susceptibility of crops to damage from frost or pests. GE producers have stressed its incredible potential for improving crop yields by making plants more resistant to pests and disease. In 1992, the Food and Drug Administration declared that genetically engineered foods would not be treated differently from naturally produced foods -- no additional safety tests, no regulatory restraints and no labeling requirements.

Multinational corporations such as Monsanto and Novartis have since invested billions of dollars in creating and marketing new crops. Swiss-based Novartis has poured $25 million into the University of California at Berkeley for plant research. While those concerned with biotech's ethical and environmental implications -- such as environmentalists and those within the religious community -- have begun to question its safety, professor Andrew Jackson, chair of the university's department of plant and microbial biology, feels the public lacks the scientific background to understand biotech. "Scientists haven't been able to educate the public as well as they would like," he says. "There are risks and benefits in everything you choose to do. When it comes to food technology, I think it has been difficult for [scientists] to get their point across."

Genetically Kosher?

Initially, within the Jewish community, GE and the issue of kashrut -- whether or not something is kosher -- was a great concern. Would something such as a vegetable spliced with pig genes remain kosher? Although a number of mainstream groups, including the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the Cornell Kosher Food Initiative, have since ruled that GE foods are, indeed, kosher -- due to the genes being so small as to be "trivial" by kosher law, religious objections still persist.

"In the Torah, there's the idea of the sanctity of boundaries between species," Rubin says, referring to the passage in Leviticus 19:19 that states, "You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed." Rubin explains that the difference between breeding -- a natural selection process between like species -- and genetic engineering -- the deliberate insertion of genes between dissimilar species and one that would never occur in nature -- is great. "We are supposed to protect these different types of creatures that have evolved," she says, "not dilute their genetic materials through random interaction."

Other theological objections lie in the Torah's commandments -- or mitzvot -- to take care of the natural world, respect its integrity and ultimately, to refrain from playing God. "The injunction at the beginning of Genesis where the world is given to Adam and he is told to subdue it -- in that sense it is our obligation to make the world a better place," says orthodox Rabbi Jacob Traub. "The people involved in bioengineering probably feel they are making the world better -- they are taking corn that normally feeds four and feeding 400. Who's to say they're not doing God's work? On the other hand, we're possibly fooling around with Frankenstein."

As Rubin sees it, genetic engineering is a monster still in its infancy, and current splicing techniques are both inexact and unpredictable, making them potentially dangerous. "There's this misconception that GE is something we understand, but it's not," she says. "When we insert a new genetic sequence, it's haphazard; we have no control where it goes."


Critics believe that genetically engineered crops could potentially harm the environment by allowing random genetic pollution between GE and non-GE crops.

Recently, genetically engineered corn named StarLink, which has not been approved for human consumption, showed up in batches of Western Family Foods taco shells, which had to be pulled from store shelves. Western Family Foods Inc. sells its products under six labels to over 3,500 stores based in 23 states. StarLink was also found in taco shells produced by Kraft, sold under the Taco Bell name, and those made by Mission Foods in Texas and distributed under several brand names, including Safeway. The farmers who planted the corn said they weren't told it must be grown and stored separately from other crops, and in one case a farmer mixed StarLink corn with that of other varieties -- about 50,000 bushels in all -- which now must be sold as animal feed.

Because federal law does not require labeling of genetically engineered products, Rubin wants to develop an eco-kosher label based on the idea of shmirat haguf, or safeguarding one's health, to help Jews and other consumers identify non-GE food. "Labels would make a phenomenal difference in increasing consciousness," says David Kupfer, an environmental consultant and organic farmer who is also a member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. "It's important to give people the option to consider [GE's] implications. When people are educated about the issue, I'm sure they'll choose organic."

Kupfer also thinks the StarLink scare helped underline how widespread genetically engineered food already is and how crucial the need is for labels. "What StarLink brings home is that there is no accountability by government agencies, and the food companies we trust do not deserve that trust," he says.

But Scott Thenell, director of regulatory affairs at DNA Plant Technology, believes the StarLink episode did not pose a great public risk. Thenell, whose company is developing genetically engineered strawberries, says he fed Starlink taco shells to his family because he has confidence in the industry. "We've been consuming biotech foods [in the United States] for several years without dire consequences," he says. "Biotech is a powerful technology with tremendous benefits. I have a strong sense that the technology will be well accepted -- the market will decide."

Food For Thought

The Torah is nearly 6,000 years old. While there is no direct mandate on genetic engineering within its pages, many in the Jewish community feel that its basic teachings are straightforward: Safeguard the Earth. "Ethically, the balance lies between developing genetically engineered food and genetics as a science to help save the planet and knowing how this will individually impact our health," says reform Rabbi Sydney Mintz, a representative from the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Mintz has actively pursued the discussion of GE with other rabbis. "It is a Jewish mandate to save our brothers and sisters and heal the world. But we don't have enough information on how this will impact us."

This is something mirrored by Rabbi Marc Israel, of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism in Washington, D.C., which works on Jewish interests in public policy. "We recognize the fundamental partnership between human beings and God, which is that God provides us with the ability to use our resources to benefit humanity," he says. "We recognize the potential benefits [of GE food] but have some grave environmental concerns that need to be weighed. Therefore," he says, "we encourage proceeding with great caution."

Food Porn

In films, books and magazines of the past two decades, a forbidden pleasure has been brazenly unveiled. It has been lushly, lovingly photographed, help up either as the antidote to stultifying societies, the source of sensual liberation, or as a passion so terrifying that it annihilates our dignity and reduces our egos to quivering plasma.

I'm not talking about sex -- that's old news. No, the newest source of pop-culture fascination and bawdy celebration is food. In the age of The Zone diet, celebrity wasting syndrome and 24 Hour Fitness, all kinds of media now fancy themselves daring for reveling in the joys of eating and the force of appetite. This month brings us Chocolat, the latest in a long line of food porn, food romance and food confessionals that includes films like Babette's Feast, Like Water for Chocolate and Big Night, books like Isabel's Allende's Aphrodite and Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything, and magazines like Bon Appetite and Savuer.

Lasse Hallstrom's new film Chocolat is a fable about the power of food and pleasure to overcome a small town's puritanical prudery. Juliette Binoche plays Vianne, an exuberant free spirit who wafts into a French village with her young daughter and opens a chocolate shop (during Lent, no less). This outrages the town's fastidious mayor, who vows to drive her out of business and accuses her of being in league with the devil. His pieties are no match for Vianne's confections, though. A cup of her pepper-spiked hot chocolate is enough to awaken the zesty hedonist in her cranky and bitter landlady, while her rose creams spur a broken, abused wife towards blooming emancipation. Romances are born and feuds are resolved. Throughout are luscious, tantalizing shots of swirling pots of melted chocolate, moist cake and earthy crushed cocoa.

Chocolat seems directly inspired by Babette's Feast, a 1987 Danish film about the transcendent power of a gourmet French meal. In that movie, a Parisian woman exiled in a tiny, harsh Danish village wins the lottery and asks her employers, two sweet, timid, pious old maids, for permission to give them one real French dinner for a village celebration. They acquiesce but soon panic, fearing perdition for allowing such flagrant indulgence. Together the townspeople vow to eat the food without noticing it, keeping their thoughts turned heavenward.

Babatte's Feast is a far better film than Chocolat in part because it respects even its most sanctimonious characters, and it doesn't conceive victory as overturning their age-old beliefs. Instead, as the townspeople consume Babette's turtle soup and fine champagne, a glow settles over them and their spirituality is heightened and expanded. Gourmet food here is almost like Ecstasy -- whatever you're doing, it makes it better.

Nevertheless, like Chocolat, the best parts of Babette's Feast are its lingering shots of food being prepared, served and savored. The camera caresses trays of truffle-stuffed quail resting in golden puffed pastry, ruby goblets of red wine and inky caviar. After the relentlessly drab, austere images that dominate the beginning of the film, these shots are their own kind of feast.

What's interesting about these films, as well as Big Night and the scads of food memoirs that line bookstores, is why there's so much drama in simply admitting to the intense pleasures of taste.

On one level, of course, all these delicacies are intended as a metaphor for sex or as a symbol of female sensuality versus male rationality. That's the theme of Allende's 1998 book Aphrodite, a musing on eating and eroticism in which she writes, "The most intense carnal pleasure, enjoyed at leisure in a clandestine, rumpled bed, a perfect combination of caresses, laughter and intellectual games, has the taste of a baguette, prosciutto, French cheese, and Rhine wine."

Chocolat certainly attempts to give its food a similarly sexual cast. An old woman confesses to her priest about eating chocolate, "I thought just one little tortures you with pleasure." Vianne flusters the mayor by offering him a white chocolate tipped "Venus's Nipple." When he finally attacks the chocolate shop, the first thing he destroys is a chocolate Venus de Milo, which he angrily knifes.

But this explanation doesn't fully explain the recent fetishization of food. After all, in our sex-saturated age, carnality hardly needs to be sublimated. What little sex there is in Chocolat isn't treated with anything approaching the drooling reverence implicit in shots of Vianne's treats. Food here isn't just a symbol. The mayor is finally undone when, in the midst of his rampage, a speck of chocolate touches his lip, sparking an epic gorge that leaves him chocolate-smeared and unconscious overnight in Vianne's shop window. Yet the mayor is never otherwise depicted as a lecher -- even after his ostensible liberation, he's still chaste and proper in a burgeoning courtship. Food is his temptation and his salvation. Sex is almost beside the point.

Similarly, in Aphrodite, the descriptions of sex lack the rhapsodic passion of Allende's writing about food. A chapter grandly called "The Orgy" is about what to serve at a bacchanal, not what to do at one. "What would I serve at my orgy? If I had unlimited resources, I would offer the guests platters with raw and cooked shellfish, meat, game birds, and cold fish, salads, sweets, and fruits -- especially grapes, which always appear in films about the Roman empire." It's almost as if the sex is just an alibi for all this food talk, since these days it's far more socially acceptable to be obsessed with fornication than with dinner.

For proof, see Henry Jaglom's 1990 film Eating, which is like the Boys and the Band of food movies. A hysterical wallow through middle class women's starvation, shameful bingeing, food guilt and eating disorders, it's the other side of films like Chocolat, and it demonstrates why so many artists feel the need to defiantly assert their appetites. Eating is both so scathing honest and screechingly melodramatic about many women's anguished relationship to food that it's hard to figure out whether it's empathetic or subtly misogynist. Set at a multigenerational, all-female birthday party in Southern California, its full of women hiding in corners and bathrooms to shovel cake in their faces, scenes and confessions of bulimia, angry rants and despairing laments about dieting and the eternal pull of the refrigerator door.

Nor is this the only film that dwells on eating and hunger as perversity. There's Peter Greenaway's 1989 The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, a gaudy Grand Guignol largely set in a restaurant and culminating in a scene where a villain is forced at gunpoint to eat a dead man trussed and roasted like a pig -- revenge for the villain's cruelty and his insatiable gluttony. In Seven, a gourmand is forced by a serial killer to eat himself to death. And the film version of American Psycho dwells endlessly on the absurd meticulousness and hollow innovations of nouvelle cuisine, evidence of the stylized emptiness of all protagonist Patrick Batemen's pleasures.

Just as sexual liberation would be meaningless without sexual shame, so films like Chocolat wouldn't make any sense without the deep sense of ambivalence about the way we eat that's dramatized by these movies. Images of Babette's perfectly browned birds or Vianne's pots of melted chocolate wouldn't be so resonant if such foods weren't forbidden or fraught with guilt. Food porn, like the regular kind, may reveal a culture's lusts, but it's also a key to its repressions.

The Way to Ex-Gay

Twenty-one-year-old Kyle Friesen is gay and doesn't want to be. A handsome former hairdresser from Winnipeg, Canada with a goatee, hipster sideburns and dark, gelled, tousled hair, he doesn't look much different than any of the insouciantly out-of-the-closet young men one sees strutting through San Francisco's Castro district or New York's Chelsea. He favors dark jeans or cargo pants with big, chunky boots, and he's adorned with five piercings -- a ring in his eyebrow and inner left ear, a hoop in each lobe and a stud in his upper right ear. He hates camping and loves fashion -- his favorite magazine is InStyle -- and dancing. But he's put all that aside this year, instead devoting his whole soul to one excruciatingly difficult goal. He's trying to become straight.

That's why in January, having made up his mind to change his sexual orientation, he moved into an apartment complex in San Rafael, California -- about 45 miles south of San Francisco -- along with twenty other men attempting to "walk out of" homosexuality. All were part of a one-year live-in program called New Hope run by Frank Worthen, one of the founders of the ex-gay movement, and his wife Anita. Among those who entered with Kyle were a singer who used to tour with Jerry Falwell's choir, a recent Yale theology graduate and an articulate 23-year-old former actor who had a full-scale Messiah-complex nervous breakdown while studying in Jerusalem. As of August, 18 of the original 21 who entered with Kyle remained.

Kyle had blamed much of his homosexuality on his desperation of acceptance. Now New Hope's residents and staff -- all of whom have been through the program -- have become like a family to him. As soon as he arrived, he said, "I felt good. It's been amazingly affirming from my peers as well as from the older men that are there. I'm a people person, so it's nice to be able to come home from work to a group of a people." He'd been isolated at home, insecure and miserable about his inability to relate to others boys. At New Hope, he got to feel like he was one of the guys. The men at New Hope eat dinner together every night -- they take turns cooking. They go on outings -- to baseball games, trips to San Francisco's Fisherman's Warf, retreats in Yosemite National Park. They take volleyball lessons from an ex-gay coach. They watch movies together and have long, intense talks. If nothing else, the program certainly seems like a temporary cure for loneliness.

Although the ex-gay movement -- a network of individuals and groups dedicated to overcoming homosexuality -- is dominated by men in their 30s and 40s, there are a significant number of people in their late teens and twenties joining it. Kyle is the youngest person at New Hope, but there are also two 23-year-olds and another 21-year-old moving in in September. At Exodus 2000, a conference all the New Hope men attended in August that brought over 1,000 ex-gays and their families to San Diego, kids with bleach jobs and baggy jeans who wouldn't have looked out of place at Limp Bizkit show milled about. Many wore T-shirts advertising Christian rock bands or proclaiming attitudinal slogans like "Satan is a Punk." It was hard to turn around without meeting someone like twenty-year-old Gary Fletcher, whose mother drove him to San Diego from the small town of Fontana, California. Gary recalled a night months ago when he was dismissively dropped off on a street in West Hollywood by a married man who he'd just slept with. He said he lied down on the pavement, sobbing and saying, "Jesus, either you take my homosexuality away from me or I'm going to take my life away from you." The conference, said Gary, was the happiest five days of his life, the first time he ever felt truly relaxed and at home.

For Kyle, the experience was similar. "The Exodus conference was, like, the first time in my life I've hung around guys my age who are dealing with this, 'cause all my friends back home are straight," he enthused. For young Christians struggling with their homosexuality, the ex-gay movement offers the same kind of instant community that homosocial centers like The Castro in San Francisco do for other gay kids. And because many of the problems that the ex-gay movement insists are endemic to gay life -- problems like loneliness, alienation and low-self esteem -- are also common to young people generally, the movement seems to offer its yearning believers a solution to all life's ills.

From the moment he became aware of his attractions to men, Kyle wished they would go away. When, at 16, he came out to his friends, it was not at all triumphal. "When I told my friends, I wasn't like, 'I'm here, I'm queer.' It was more, 'I'm having these feelings and I don't know what to do. I want to change. I don't want to be this way.'" Still, he had a secret boyfriend for five years, from 13 to 17 -- a boy who stayed in the closet and recently married. At 18, Kyle said he started going to gay clubs with his straight girlfriends and doing "all kinds" of drugs. But he felt guilty and sinful. "Do gay people go to hell? I don't know," he said. But that uncertainty is itself terrifying. Besides, he said, without God as he conceives him in his life, "I can't be fulfilled." He believes he can't be gay and whole.

New Hope's live-in program, one of at least four residential ex-gay ministries for men in the country (the others are in Tennessee, Kentucky and Kansas), is run as an intensive rehab and costs eight hundred dollars a month. Founder Frank Worthen aims to impart "both a Christian religious view of things and also a bit of reparative therapy," he says -- although neither he nor anyone on the program's staff has any psychological training. "It's a psychological program that gives you the understanding of how homosexuality began in the first place from deficits in your life that have to be filled before you can emerge out of that lifestyle."

In ex-gay ideology, homosexuality is a form of "sexual brokenness" that results from early depravations. Usually it's attributed to the absence of a loving father, except when the homosexual in question had a loving father, in which case its blamed on peer rejection, an overbearing mother, sexual molestation or whatever factors fit (Kyle, for example, has an excellent relationship with his father). "Usually homosexuality is what they call a father replacement search. It's to find a loving, approving male that will affirm you," Worthen says. Like almost everyone in the ex-gay subculture, he believes that gay relationships simply can't work, a view he bases on his own experiences and those of the men who come to him. All his relationships were "very bad," he says. "Anonymous sex is about all that's there, really. Most of the times when you get into a relationship you get burned. They can't meet your needs."

The complex where New Hope residents occupy five apartments is a low, boxy building a few blocks from the brewpubs and California-cuisine restaurants of San Rafael's tiny downtown. The doors face away from the street, and long balcony filled with leafy plants and cacti stretches in front of them. Except for the bedrooms, which are private, New Hope's 18 residents can come and go among the apartments as they please. The units are large and light-filled, decorated in mauves, grays and beiges. There's a lovely grandfather clock in one of the living rooms, and hanging plants throughout. Wind chimes sound faintly outside. Walls are adorned with posters of howling coyotes and paintings of desert scenes. Were it not for the huge tapestry of the Pieta in one room or the framed bible quotations scattered everywhere, the dwellings would look like upscale Santa Fe hotel rooms.

There are bunk beds in the bedroom Kyle shares with a shy man in his early 30s, a room wallpapered with letters Kyle's received from his friends and family, as well as old photographs, one showing him as a bleached blond. His small CD collection is filled with Christian analogues of mainstream pop -- there's an album by a group called Out of Eden, who Kyle describes as a Christian Destiny's Child, and a few from The World Wide Message Tribe, who make Christian techno. Looking at them, he says he misses going out dancing. "There was a time when my friend and I would go to this club and just dance the whole night," he says. "Sometimes I just dance in my room."

One August evening it was Kyle's turn to cook. He was given $30 to buy food, and because he's graduated to Phase 3 of New Hope's program, he was allowed to go shopping at Safeway alone. He returned with canned corn, mashed potatoes, ham steaks, turkey ham steaks, and gravy (the bible's ban on pork, apparently, isn't taken quite as literally as other prohibitions). As he prepared dinner, residents home from work milled around on the balcony or lounged on couches inside the apartments. Most were startlingly friendly. Before eating, they all held hands and Kyle led a prayer, politely thanking God for my presence. Then they took their seats around a large oval table and bade me to serve myself first.

A jovial, flush-faced man with sun-creased skin sitting at the far end of the table turned to me and said, "You realize that this is a process and you're just seeing the beginning." In response, I asked everyone where they saw themselves in ten years. "In ten years I'll be sitting at the dinner table with my wife and kids," responded a chubby man with wire-rim glasses. Pointing to the man next to him, he added, "I'll be waiting to go to his wedding." To which the other man responded with a distinctly queeny inflection, "Oh puh-lease, I'll be married *way* before you." The chubby man rolled his eyes and told me, "We're very competitive."

New Hope participants are expected to work full-time jobs in the surrounding community, but they all have to be home by 5:30 p.m. Kyle, who can't legally work in the U.S., does administrative support in the New Hope office, which covers half his rent. His parents pay for everything else. Evenings and weekends at New Hope are devoted to what members like to call "healing," through classes, support group meetings, multifarious readings and lots and lots of prayer. Tuesday evenings, there's a house meeting, after which everyone breaks into groups of six to recount their weeks. Monday and Thursday evenings, they gather for "praise and worship" in a spacious room with a piano in one corner. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, they attend classes from 8 p.m. until 9:30 or 10, mostly taught by Worthen -- in August, they were studying a Christian self-help book called "Telling Yourself the Truth." Friday nights, the residents take turn helping Worthen run his drop-in support group. Wednesdays, they play volleyball. Saturdays, they clean, and Sundays, of course, they go to church.

Three times a year, they have what House Leader Howard Hervey calls "straight men interviews," in which heterosexual guys, often recruited from the church, come to the classes to answer questions about what it's like to be, well, straight. For example, explains Hervey, someone might ask the visitor, "When you see a good-looking guy, what do you feel?" "He might say, 'I want to be his friend,'" Hervey says, which helps the residents understand that responding to attractive people is normal, and that they're not so different from other men.

Of course, it would seem that putting twenty-one men gay men, all struggling to repress their desires, in a group home together is a recipe for catastrophe. And indeed, says Hervey, "There have been instances where there's been a lot of unhealthy bonding." But since New Hope conceives homosexuality as a never-fulfilled quest for acceptance and positive male affirmation, learning to connect to other men in a non-sexual way is considered essential. "It's a calculated risk," he says of the living situation. "What we've tried to do is make the house a safe place to relate. We need to be able to work through a lot of our brokenness and learn to relate to other men before those other men will accept us. We need to learn to deal with our emotional dependence issues, our immaturity, our victim mentality."

If an attraction does develop between two guys at New Hope, says Hervey, the program has a response called "Putting them on Level." "They're not allowed to be in the same room together alone," he says. "If we go out they're not allowed to ride in the same car together. If we're sitting at the table they have to sit on the same side so there's no direct eye contact. And then the whole house holds them accountable."

Worthen says, "We want them to experience everything they're going to experience within the year they're with us, so we can work it through in the group. It all gets talked about. It's all brought to the group. They get expelled from the program if they hide anything. Everything -- feelings, actions, everything has to be brought to the group."

New Hope doesn't actually promise to make participants straight. "There are a spectrum of results," says Worthen, a 71-year-old-man with big, rheumy blue eyes, a bulbous nose and a turned down mouth who looks quite stern except when he breaks into a warm, crinkly-eyed smile. "It's very easy to stop your behavior, but what you are then is a celibate homosexual. You're not heterosexual. There are degrees of change. Some people do make it all the way to heterosexuality, family and children -- we have lots and lots of little babies that are here because of Exodus."

Yet he admits that fully 50 percent of the people who come to his ministry return to homosexuality. The workbook that he wrote for participants in the live-in program says, "Our primary goal is not to make heterosexuals out of homosexual people. God alone determines whether a former homosexual person is to marry and rear a family, or if he (or she) is to remain celibate, serving the Lord with his whole heart."

Thus those who succeed in giving up homosexuality often face a rather lonely life. Five years after completing the program, forty-four-year-old Hervey says he's no longer attracted to men. He adds, though, that he's also not attracted to women. And two years ago, he had to step down from his first stint as house leader after he had a "sexual fall" with another man. Hervey has a leathery face and blue eyes under a lined forehead. His brown hair is cut in a mullet, and he wears squareish glasses and a tan T-shirt with a picture of bloody nails on it that says, "Not by Nails, By His Love." He doesn't get paid to work at New Hope -- he runs the maintenance operation at a nearby plastic injection molding company, a step down from his old job as a civilian contractor doing engineering work on Navy jets. But while he will likely never again be part of a couple, he says he's never been more at peace than he is living at New Hope. He quotes the bible, "You have been bought with a price," which means, he says, "I'm a slave." "The bible teaches you're either serving God or serving the devil," he says in a deep, even monotone. "You're a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness."

If you're an educated liberal, you might be sneering by now. You may have even seen the movie "But I'm a Cheerleader," with RuPaul and Natasha Lyonne, which broadly satirized ex-gay camps for teenagers (which, by the way, don't exist). Try to imagine, though, what you would do if your passions conflicted so totally with your most unshakable gut beliefs that you truly felt following your libido would lead you to perdition. Leviticus 18:22 says, "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination." Kyle, like most of the residents at New Hope, takes that line literally. His parents are deacons in their church, and he was raised an evangelical Christian. His religion is as deep in him as his sexual orientation. His conflict is unresolvable.

We've all heard the statistics about depression among gay kids -- according to a study reported in the AMA Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, "Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or not sure youth report a significantly increased frequency of suicide attempts. Sexual orientation has an independent association with suicide attempts for males." Growing up gay isn't easy for anyone, and plenty of gay teenagers wish they could just be "normal." The gay community tells Kyle that he was born gay, that it's an unalterable part of him. It's the last thing he wants to hear. "The pro-gay movement is so pushy," he complains. "It's like, 'You're gay, accept it, love it.' They don't give people a choice." The ex-gay movement offers Kyle at least the illusion of options. Frank Worthen's ministry tells him he can have a life like his parents and married sisters back home in Winnipeg -- that he can have a wife, children and the place in the world that he dreams of for himself.

And that's what Kyle wants -- not celibacy, but family. His dreams of marriage are one reason why "I'm committed to this whole change. Because its hard -- I'll tell you its hard," he says definitely. "That's the bottom line. This has definitely been the hardest year of my life. There are times when I hate my life."

Kyle is too self-aware to expect that he'll magically become straight when his time in the program runs out this winter. "I don't think I'll ever lust after girls," he says. "Lust-wise, I think it will always be guys. Just like any sin, Satan's going to bring temptation. As you continue your relationship with God, you learn to fight those temptations. I believe it will almost get to the point where it's like I don't have these feelings."

But he insists he can feel himself changing. "I've already noticed the difference. With my straight girlfriends, I'm not necessarily completely physically turned on by them, but once I get to know them at a deeper level I become physically attracted to some of them. It's like whoa, there's something more here."

There are four phases to New Hope's program. During the first, residents aren't allowed to leave the grounds without two other people. In the second, they can go out with one other person. When they reach the third phase, they can do basic chores like shopping alone, and in the fourth phase they can come and go largely as they please, as long as they sign out. Throughout, there's a curfew -- 10:30 p.m. during the week and between 11 and 12 on weekends, depending on which phase the resident is in. Like Kyle, most of the residents are in Phase 3. Some, though, have been kept in phase 2 for breaking the rules -- Dave, 23, was held back after he called phone sex lines twice and then confessed to the group.

Residents are allowed to watch two movies on the house VCR during the weekends, provided they're rated G, PG or PG-13. They need special permission to go to R-rated movies in theaters. "They might let you go see something like "Saving Private Ryan," something that's violence oriented. Anything with sex they say no," Kyle explains. They're not permitted to use the Internet or visit bookstores. Sarcastic, campy humor is verboten. Instructs one of the workbooks, "Watch that your conversation does not show the old lifestyle in an intriguing way, as there may be some men in the program that have not engaged in actual gay sex acts. It is our goal to bring people out of the gay mind-set rather than to reinforce the gay mind-set."

Kyle, though, was never really in the "gay mind-set," whatever that is. Before he came to New Hope, he didn't have any openly gay friends. Now he speaks authoritatively of "the gay lifestyle," which he's learned about largely from the older men in the program and at conferences like Exodus, where orators seem to compete with each other in telling of the wretched degradation they wallowed in before Jesus appeared in their lives. One of Exodus's most visible spokespeople is John Paulk, a former male prostitute and drag queen who went through New Hope and is now a father married to an ex-lesbian. He works at the conservative organization Focus on the Family. Another speaker at the Exodus conference was Bob Van Domelen, a former high school music teacher who molested male students for fifteen years, eventually serving three years in prison. Today, Van Domelen runs an ex-gay ministry in Wisconsin and helps Exodus with its rhetorical attempt to conflate homosexuality and pedophilia.

So it's little surprise that Kyle sees gay life as a vampiric netherworld. "There's not very many ex-gay young people because of the way the gay lifestyle is set up," he said. "[Gays] thrive off young people. Young people are *it*, and somebody from a really rejected background can go to a gay bar or to a gay community and they are loved and accepted. Then, by the time they're 35 or 40, they're kind of old and used and the gay community is like, OK, we're done with you. That's when they feel, 'I don't want anything to do with this lifestyle anymore,' and then they come here."

That capsule narrative is a staple of ex-gay ideology, one put forward perhaps most forcefully by Frank Worthen himself. Born in San Jose, California, Worthen lived as a gay man for 25 years -- he was actually a pioneer in the gay rights movement. But as he got into his forties, he says, he was alone and hideously depressed. There were bars in San Francisco that wouldn't admit men his age. The only sex he could get was the sex he could pay for. Some of his friends had killed themselves.

So in 1973, when an employee at one of the import stores he owned started evangelizing to him, he was ripe for change. He became a born-again Christian and left what almost everyone in the ex-gay movement scornfully calls "the lifestyle." Six months later, wanting to reach back to his old community, he took out an ad in a San Francisco sex paper announcing a support group for men who wanted to get away from their homosexuality. "The first year, sixty people answered my ad and all said they wanted out. Many of them were suicidal," he recalls.

Then Worthen's pastor wrote one of the first Christian books about homosexuality called "The Third Sex." Soon, he says, "people began to arrive on our doorstep with their luggage and say, "My church doesn't understand me, the people in my town reject me and you seem to be the only people who understand what I'm going through.' We didn't know what to do with the people initially, and finally we developed community houses for them so they could live in our church community. That was the beginning of our residential program."

In 1975, Worthen heard of a similar group in Southern California. The next year, the two groups held a conference, and twelve ministries attended. They banded together under the name Exodus. Now Exodus has one hundred ministries in 35 states in the U.S., ten ministries in seven countries in Europe, seven in Australia and New Zealand and one each in the Philippines, Japan and Singapore. In addition, there's an ex-gay group for Jews called Jonah and one for Catholics called Courage.

Today, Worthen lives with his wife, Anita, who got involved with Exodus because she was devastated after her son Tony told her he was gay. Tony is still gay, but he's close to both Frank and Anita -- in fact, he and his boyfriend live in an apartment owned by Frank in the same complex as New Hope's residents. Amazingly, when Tony's old lover George was dying of AIDS, it was Anita who nursed him through his last months, even though she blamed him for infecting her own beloved boy. Whatever one thinks of the Worthens' teachings, they truly mean well -- neither are hate-mongers. They speak affectionately of the men in the program as "our guys," and genuinely believe that they're helping them. They're convinced that homosexuality is sickness and sin, and it's their mission to free people from it.

The problem with helping people Kyle's age, says Worthen, is that they haven't experienced the so-called horrors of gay life firsthand. "We have difficulty with the young people because they haven't had enough experience, and they still think it can work. They may think, 'I've just had the wrong partners.'" And, indeed, Kyle confesses that, at moments, "I still have thoughts that I could have a boyfriend, that it could still work for me."

That's why Hervey encourages New Hope's younger residents to learn about gay life from the older ones. "I've known a lot of gay couples - men specifically, with women it's different -- but I have never met a monogamous gay male couple. Ever," Hervey insists. "They've always fooled around on the side. And I just tell them it doesn't work. It. Doesn't. Work." Nevertheless, Hervey himself was in a relationship for eleven years before he left his lover to join New Hope. Three years later, his lover followed him into the program. Today, they both live there, which in a perverse way seems evidence of an enduring gay romance.

Still, the message that real gay love is a delusion has gotten through to Kyle. He talks about a 36-year-old friend from Exodus who was actively gay for 12 years, saying, "He knows there's nothing there. There's no option of going back. There's nothing to go back to. He hates it. I'm learning from that guy's mistakes. I'm hearing other testimonies saying how horrible it was, and I'm learning from that. A lot of these men have wasted decades of their lives, and now they're in the same place I am. I have my whole life ahead of me."

Whether he's moving towards a workable truth or away from any hope for happiness is impossible to say. There are legions of mainstream therapists and ex-ex-gays arrayed against New Hope and groups like it. John Evans, a former colleague of Worthen's turned vociferous critic, has said, "They're destroying people's lives." Jack Drescher M.D., The chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues Committee, calls ex-gay therapy "an abuse of therapeutic authority" and says, "There's clearly a lot of anecdotal evidence of people who've been through these treatments and feel that they have been hurt by them." Yet for Christians like Kyle, God trumps science. The question is whether Kyle's God can also trump sex.

Cigarette Smuggling Rakes in Profits

Last month, robbers blasted into a downtown San Jose, California warehouse, pistol-whipping the owner and filling their midsize U-Haul van with about $100,000 worth of stolen "drugs."

The heist occurred only one month after a similar bust in North Carolina, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation hauled in 17 smugglers running the same contraband goods. The group faces charges of trafficking drugs to fund gunrunning for Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group backed by the Shiite Muslim community.

And in the Italian port town of Brindisi, smugglers cornered by police slammed a battering ram, which was attached to the front of their bulletproofed SUV, into the officers' car.

The suspects escaped on foot but left their cargo behind. They weren't running cocaine or heroin, but smugglers' current drug of choice -- contraband cigarettes.

On the international black market, cigarette smugglers are proving that guns, violence and international terrorism aren't just for illegal drug dealers anymore. Some say it's due to high taxes, others say Big Tobacco companies collaborating with dealers are to blame. But from China to Columbia, California to Canada, everybody seems to agree that the burgeoning cigarette black market has become far more lucrative than selling marijuana, and safer than running illegal drugs -- except for law enforcement, which has seen levels of violence rise with the profits at stake. The SUV-driving smugglers in Italy, for example, were willing to kill for 20 cartons of smokes.

Nic Fit

The San Jose theft at the wholesaler's warehouse may have been the biggest in a local string of cigarette robberies, but it wasn't the most violent. Four thieves who held up a 7-Eleven kicked and beat the clerk, who wound up in the hospital with a broken arm and fractured jaw. Like the Italian dealers, they only made off with about 20 cartons of cigarettes.

"At this time we don't think any of the local thefts are connected," says San Jose Police Department Detective Patrick Boyd. "The price of cigarettes has gotten real high, meaning the value of cigarettes is going up on the black market."

While the department's public information officer, Rubens Dalaison, agrees that costly cigarettes have become a profitable commodity, especially since the recent passage of cig-tax boosting Proposition 10, he says that stealing smokes is nothing new.

"Our vice unit has been going out for years to advise shop owners on risk awareness," Dalaison says. "Now, just the amount and quantity have increased."

Police have only arrested one person for a rash of thefts, and a 16-year-old suspect was released without providing officers leads on other similar incidents. Officers remain uncertain whether the crimes are organized crime or gang-related, and because the cases are still under investigation, they can't answer questions about where cigarettes may have been smuggled, or to whom.

Unanswered questions around cigarette smuggling seem to be a chronic condition throughout California. Los Angeles Police Department Detective Jack Giroud refuses to talk about local cigarette thefts, which have involved truck hijackings and a high-speed chase through the San Fernando Valley.

"I don't want to discuss it," says a frustrated Giroud. "We don't have anybody in custody, and I don't want to teach people how to steal cigarettes."

State of the Sticks

'We regulate everything that's interesting and controversial," chirps Marti McKee, public information officer for the San Francisco branch of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau (ATF). And things have never been more exciting in the world of cigarette investigators. During the flurry of lawsuits against Big Tobacco companies like British American Tobacco and R.J. Reynolds, thousands of pages of corporate documents indicated that cigarette manufacturers may have played a role in global smuggling operations. Tobacco companies, who lobbied hard against cigarette taxes like California's Proposition 10, have maintained that they shouldn't be held accountable for what happens to their product after it's sold.

Libertarians agree, blaming high taxes for the burgeoning black market and new government enforcement bureaucracy.

"Californians need to do away with this draconian, discriminatory and unfair tax," Libertarian Party state chair Mark Hinkle wrote in support of this spring's attempt to repeal the 1998 tobacco taxes brought by Proposition 10.

According to Leslie Thompson, a former employee of RJR Nabisco, his bosses knew of and encouraged global smuggling operations. This summer he told Newsweek (July 31, 2000) that his export outfit, owned by RJR Nabisco, actually worked with smugglers to import cigarettes, which were then stored secretly on a Mohawk reservation on the U.S.-Canadian border before being sold to Canadian black marketeers. Thompson's revelations may have been new, but they came as no surprise to investigators at the World Health Organization. They estimate that one-third of the 200 billion cigarettes exported in 1998 ended up in smugglers' warehouses.

Alcohol, tobacco and firearms specialist McKee says that she can't divulge too much information about the organized crime syndicates suspected in California cigarette thefts, except that they seem to exist.

"These are the same types of organized criminal networks involved in illegal drugs," McKee says. "The taxes are relatively new, but ATF has been extremely involved because of some big cases. In California this has been a newer thing because of the recent tax."

Smoke Signals/Bootleg Butts

In San Jose, cigarette thefts used to involve grabbing a few packs, or maybe a carton, and slipping out of a 7-Eleven or local tobacco shop. But as profits increased, so did the use of U-Haul trucks, firearms and violence. California tax collectors haven't yet calculated how much tax money the state government has lost to smugglers. But David Schiller, an assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, says that one smuggling ring alone is believed to have cost the state $18 million in tobacco and sales taxes.

Monte Williams, chief of the investigations division for tax collectors at Sacramento's Board of Equalization, says they hope new laws passed in 1999 to regulate imports and exports will squelch smuggling rings. The laws require stricter regulations meant to prohibit products sold for use outside the United States from being brought back into the country, where they can then be sold at discount on the "gray market," free of state tobacco taxes.

On the web, about 2,000 sites offer discounted cigarettes. For example, the web-based smokeshop advertises itself as "the last refuge of the persecuted smoker."

But because many such websites have their stocked warehouses on Native American lands, which are free of national tobacco tax requirements, tax collectors find that law enforcement needs to become as sophisticated as cigarette smugglers.

"It has made life more interesting," Williams says of the World Wide Web.

Still, few smokers seem too concerned about cigarette companies -- or the government -- losing money due to competition from bootleggers.

"If somebody came to my house selling cigarettes, I'd buy them," Morgan Pershing, a Mountain View-based dotcom employee and longtime smoker, says. "It's not like the cigarette companies are angels or anything."

Beef Cake Blues

At only four inches long, it told worlds about the modern male body. And I will never forget the first time I stood, dismayed and deflated, cradling a new beefed-up model of the Han Solo Star Wars action figure in my hands.

My siblings and I spent much of our childhood playing with an army of the original Kenner Toy Company creations throughout the '70s and '80s. Now less than 20 years later, their contemporary counterparts line toy store shelves in honor of the re-release of the legendary trilogy and new Phantom Menace series, and they are barely recognizable.

With their bulging plastic pectorals, massive shoulders and beefcake thighs, both Han and Luke Skywalker seem to have spent the '90s popping steroids and pumping iron in some intergalactic weight room. And with a trainer who looked nothing like Yoda.

According to a trio of mental-healthcare professionals, these miniature models of masculinity are only one symptom of a massive body-image nightmare building among modern males. Dr. Harrison Pope Jr., Dr. Katharine Phillips and Roberto Olivardia, authors of the new book The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession aim to break the silence around what they say is a hidden health catastrophe afflicting millions of American men.

Pope, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, says that plastic action figures actually helped inspire the book, which captured a cover spot on TIME Magazine before being released this May.

"My 14-year-old daughter was on the computer one night, and I asked what she was doing. She said she was doing her Barbie project," Pope says, launching into what Barbie's measurements would be were she a real woman. Poor Barbie, who boasts an impossible waistline, has grown even thinner over the years, and his teen set out to study how the doll is molding body image among women.

He adds, "So it occurred to me that there must be a male equivalent."

After Pope's daughter finished her research, he scanned the Internet and found thousands of webpages hosting a culture of G.I. Joe collectors. He found that the original Joe, the land-adventurer model introduced in 1964, sports measurements similar to an average male in good shape -- if he were just under six feet tall, he would have a 32-inch waist, a 44-inch chest and 12-inch biceps. Yet the recent G.I. Joe Extreme muscled his way into the toy scene a few years back with a bulging body that, if full-sized, would be impossible to achieve without steroids, featuring 27-inch biceps nearly as big as his waist.

G.I. Joe may be the most famous and longest-running action toy, but he is only part of America's yearly $1 billion market in male action toys. After becoming an avid action toy collector, Pope discovered they have all been buffing up over the years.

Feminist theorists devote entire theses and books to expounding on the effects on growing girls of trying to fit into Barbie's arch-breaking shoes, but the Adonis Complex authors argue that hardly anybody is exploring G.I. Joe and the beefing up of the American male. They say the secrecy around male body-image woes and their symptoms, including excessive workouts, steroid abuse, eating disorders and distorted body perception known as "bigorexia nervosa," has only made things worse for guys.

"There's a widespread crisis among today's boys and men -- a crisis that few people have noticed. Men of all ages, in unprecedented numbers, are preoccupied with the appearance of their bodies," the book begins. "They almost never talk openly about this problem, because in our society, men have been taught that they aren't supposed to be hung up on how they look. But beneath the tranquil surface, we see signs of this crisis everywhere."

Obsession, for Men

Most women who know Josh describe him as a walking poster child for the tall, dark and handsome. He has a gym membership, but with his demanding work schedule and active social life he doesn't get to work out as much as he thinks he should. But after a recent trip to the flea market on an especially hot, sticky day, the 31-year-old says he realized just how badly he needs to get in shape.

"There were all of these guys walking around without their shirts on; they were all buff," Josh says. "I was so hot, but there was no way I was gonna take my shirt off. No way."

Josh can rattle off his list of his perceived body imperfections: thinning hair on his head, growing woes with unruly back and nose hair, love handles and lack of a six-pack set of abdominal muscles. When asked if he thinks about his body every day, Josh rolls his eyes and nods.

"I think about it as soon as I look at myself in the mirror in the morning; getting in and out of the shower; when I get dressed. And when I'm out and see guys that are more attractive than I am," he says.

Josh went through an especially hard time lately, but he seems relieved that his lack of an appetite has helped him lose weight fast. He hopes to drop another 10 pounds and says he is positive that getting rid of his love handles will help him have better self-esteem.

Josh refuses to let me use his real name for the story and says that people finding out about his body image worries is "the last thing he needs."

According to Adonis co-author Phillips, professor of psychiatry at Brown University, Josh represents only one of the milder cases amid millions of men struggling with body dysmorphic disorder, or distorted body perception.

She says that the numbers for guys struggling specifically with muscle dysmorphia, extreme shame and embarrassment about their muscle tone or lack thereof, totals more than 100,000 in the United States alone. In Adonis, the authors describe one man who was fired after refusing to stop blending protein shakes at his cubicle at work, despite co-workers' complaints about the disruptive noise, and another who refuses to kiss his girlfriend because he fears that her calorie-laden saliva will lead to unwanted pounds.

Since Phillips began her residency 15 years ago, she has made it her life's work to treat men with body-image woes. She and her co-authors named guys' unhealthy obsessions after Adonis, a half-god, half-man from Greek mythology who was the peak of masculine beauty, gorgeous enough to win the love of the goddess Aphrodite and so irresistible he started an ugly cat fight among the women of the Pantheon.

"This is a disorder that affects as many men as women, yet people assume this is just a woman's problem. Men die from these various forms of Adonis," Phillips says. She cites steroid abuse, eating disorders and suicide. "This is not to minimize the suffering that women experience, but to say that men can suffer just as much."

During their research the authors found that 45 percent of American men surveyed say they are dissatisfied with their body, according to their 1997 study. That percentage has almost doubled since survey responses in 1972. They also found that straight and gay men seem equally afflicted, despite popular stereotypes that gay men are more concerned with appearance.

To penetrate verbal taboos and make it easier for guys to talk, the authors created a series of computerized body image tests involving rows of male bodies of increasing muscle size. In these tests, men picked models averaging about 28 pounds more muscle than they have -- and about 15 to 20 pounds more than what women say they look for in a mate. Authors call this syndrome "bigorexia nervosa," a disorder where sufferers believe they look like wimps no matter how muscular they become.

With the soaring popularity of the World Wrestling Federation and other prime-time professional wrestling soap operas, more than five million men working out at gyms decorated with supermale images, and an increase in scantily clad boys gracing advertisements, Pope and Phillips argue that the secret crisis is only growing more pervasive.

"Now we've come to realize that the rise of 'bigorexia syndrome' is a warning signal," Pope says. "It's a bellwether of what our society is doing to contemporary men's views about their bodies."

Roid Rage

"Yeah, but how many men are actually dying of this?" a skeptical friend asks, rolling her eyes at the talk-show-ready title of the book.

Meaning it may be provocative to look at body image in terms of men instead of women, which explains the media frenzy surrounding the release of Adonis. But considering how many women suffer from body-image problems and eating disorders, how serious is the Adonis Complex? For example, sales of men's hair-color kits like Grecian Formula and Just for Men have risen by 50 percent over the last five years, reaching $113.5 million last year -- but even if the boys are experiencing new body consciousness, it's difficult to imagine how it could compare to the women hospitalized each year with anorexia nervosa.

One out of 100 young women between 10 and 20 years old are starving themselves, according to researchers at the Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. In a 1998 survey, 58 percent of nearly 40,000 British teens said that appearance is the biggest concern of their lives. That same year more than half of American teenage women said that they are dieting, or think they should be.

"There's an increasing objectification of everybody, but it has its most damaging effects on women. Men still have much greater power in society," says Bettina Aptheker, professor of women's studies at University of California-Santa Cruz. "You can't equate men and women in this context, because for women our appearance has been a way to get access to marriage and for survival. Men may have trouble talking about body image, but they have trouble talking about most things."

Pope agrees with Aptheker that women's body-image problems are often a matter of life and death. But he argues that the Adonis Complex is both extremely common and quite dangerous, especially in terms of steroid abuse.

"A survey found that six percent of high school students had used anabolic steroids, or two to three million American men," Pope says. "And that's a conservative estimate. This is an enormous number of men using themselves as guinea pigs, placing themselves at risk in ways we don't yet understand. Steroids could lead to heart disease, stroke, prostate cancer, psychiatric effects. In a recent study. we learned it also leads to increased rates of addiction to opiates. Not to mention a huge number using legal body-building supplements that we don't know much about."

He explains that only one in 15 people who seek counseling at eating-disorder clinics are men but says most anorexic college-age men he interviewed refused to get professional help.

Pope says, "Women's eating disorders became a topic that people could talk about, while the Adonis Complex still hides in a veil of secrecy."

Body Talk

Pamela Anderson Lee may have shunned silicone in her much-publicized breast implant removal, but cosmetic surgery is on the rise among American men and women. No longer limited to traditional procedures like hair transplants and nose reshaping, guys can now opt for calf and pectoral implants, penis augmentations and breast reductions.

American males received a total of more than 690,000 cosmetic surgeries in 1996, according to The Adonis Complex. Still, the Plastic Surgery Information Service website reveals that, during that same year, 89 percent of cosmetic surgery patients were women.

Plastic surgeon M. Dean Vistnes estimates that 40 percent of his patients are men, who most often are looking for liposuction and eyelid surgeries.

"Most of the men that we operate on are in pretty good shape, people who work out. but as they get older it's difficult to fight time," Vistnes says. "And we see a lot people in high tech, because so much is expected of them in terms of the hours that they put in."

Since finishing his residency in 1993, Vistnes has witnessed an increasing percentage of male patients coming into his practice -- an observation backed by national trends. But he says that the men he sees are generally healthy, active types who don't seem miserable with their bodies. He says that cities like Miami and Los Angeles have higher rates of calf and pectoral implants, and surgeries to create "that six-pack look."

"I don't think it's an unhealthy thing. The group of patients that we're seeing are healthy, they're active, and from our perspective they're ideal. Because they're starting from a better point we tend to get good results," Vistnes says. "Men and women today are both concerned about how they look. I don't think it's skewed toward one or the other."

Dr. Josh Korman, another plastic surgeon, says that his male patients, who make up about one-third of his clientele, usually often opt for nose jobs, liposuction of the hips or abdomen, or eyelid lifts. He says that male breast reductions for steroid-popping body builders are also a common procedure, and that he has done close to 100 of them during his decade-long tenure. Korman also conducts occasional pectoral implants, a procedure that involves making an incision and placing a pad of silicone under the pectoral muscle to give guys a more cut look.

"The implant is about as big as a medium-size candy dish. Not as big as a fruit bowl and not as small as a small candy dish," Korman explains.

Donald, a pectoral implant veteran, knows all about slippage troubles.

"My first set looked OK at first, but then one would move around," Donald laments, recalling his initial silicone pectoral boosts. The 50-year-old electrician turned to Korman for his second shot at bulging pecs about a year ago and has been thrilled with the results.

"I can't even tell. At first when you have them it feels different, but now they move with the muscle. And they don't ever sag," Donald says. "Dr. Korman did a real good job. The thing you've got to do is sew them in place so they don't move."

Donald says that the implants weren't just an easy way to buy a better body without hard work. He lifts weights every day and dropped from 460 pounds to about 175.

"I was working out all the time but couldn't get what other people had," Donald says. When Donald had loose skin removed by another plastic surgeon, he heard about pectoral implants and knew they were the solution for him. He says that for the first time in his life he can take his shirt off and feel good about his body. The bachelor says that he gets much more attention from women these days but probably won't break the news to a potential mate until after the wedding day.

"It's not like I didn't work hard for my body. The implants just gave me incentive," Donald says. "Now I have stomach muscles and a nice set of abs. You have to work hard to make a good body stay that way. The operation hurts, but afterward you are really glad that you did it."

Stiff Competition

One of the more controversial theories in The Adonis Complex about the causes and consequences of male body obsession takes root in the arguments of Susan Faludi, author of Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Faludi devotes more than 600 pages to showing that contemporary masculinity has spun into an identity crisis. While some anguished New Age men are flocking to drum circles and running Robert Bly-inspired men's retreats, the Adonis authors insist the crisis has guys going to the gym in record numbers.

"As women have advanced, men have gradually lost their traditional identities as breadwinners, fighters and protectors," Pope says. "For some men, the body has become the last bastion of masculinity."

Alison, a recent graduate of Santa Clara University, says that her fiance has a pretty healthy body image. But since she recently moved in with him, Alison, who asked that her real name not be used, has learned just how much guys think about body image.

"Here's the regular routine. We go to the gym and come home, and he takes off his shirt and does this pose. It's this understated muscle pose, with one leg in front of the other, his arms are flexed, slightly rounded, hanging down in front of his legs," Alison says. "Then he asks me if I can tell the difference, asks me if he looks more cut."

Alison says that despite his positive body image, her husband-to-be is very self-conscious about his stomach and is terrified that he may be getting a beer belly.

"He regularly checks out himself in the mirror," she adds, rattling off his numerous muscle-man poses. "Always shirtless, and with this very serious expression."

Fear and Gloating

Despite the increasingly absurd pronouncements of capitalism's Candides at glossies like Wired, Fast Company, Business 2.0 and Red Herring, the numbers of new-economy apostates are swelling. They're the disgruntled masses of dotcom disbelievers salivating over each slide of the NASDAQ, grinning with gleeful Shadenfreude every time layoffs are reported at a high-tech startup. Though obscured by the 23-year-olds piloting Lexus SUVs, a brisk trade in multimillion-dollar real estate and the still-thick haze of irrational exuberance, the new naysayers are forming a rapidly growing presence online, where a group of websites are channeling their anxiety and bile into venomous but oddly vibrant communities. They're the dotcom deathwatchers, and their swelling numbers suggest that a backlash is brewing against the Internet economy. As the dotcom layoffs mount -- a recent New York Times article counts more than 2,000 -- so do the ranks of the disillusioned.

There are three major websites devoted to jeering the demise of sick and dying dotcoms and providing a forum for venting against slave-driving startups, ludicrous business models and betrayed promises of stock-option riches. The oldest is, a website and mailing list founded at the end of 1998 that has seen its membership increase by 25 percent in the last month. Then there's the self-explanatory (its slogan is "kick 'em while they're down"), which tracks online layoffs and shutdowns. Founded four weeks ago by 25-year-old Ryan Nitz, the site includes a convenient "Lackey Calculator," which allows users to compute how much money they've lost if they work more than 40 hours a week or they took a salary cut to work at a startup -- and how much their options need to be worth in order to break even. Nitz says he gets between 15,000 and 20,000 hits a day, and his newsletter goes out to 1,200 people.

Finally there's, the most ingenious site of all. With a logo designed to look like that of Fast Company, the bible of Tom Peters acolytes, Fucked Company allows users to choose five companies they expect to suffer setbacks, winning points for various degrees of failure. There are also news items and lively bulletin boards. Since 24-year-old Philip Kaplan started it a month ago as a joke intended to amuse a half-dozen friends, Fucked Company has had a growth rate most websites would die for -- according to its founder, there are currently 80,000 people playing and there have been a million page views. The response has been so phenomenal, Kaplan says, that 30 or 40 companies have offered to donate prizes in order to get exposure on the site. Starting on July 1,those who pick the worst companies can win gift certificates and possibly even vacations -- something that will come in especially handy for all those layoff victims. Those who post juicy news to the site will get their own reward -- stock from, well, fucked companies.

A wide range of motivation draws players to Fucked Company. Almost all are connected to the tech industry, but while some want to see the whole dotcom pyramid scheme tumble, others simply enjoy watching the most ridiculous startups flame out. Kaplan, 24, is clearly in the latter camp -- in fact, he says that he hopes all the attention Fucked Company has been getting will be good PR for PK Interactive, the web shop that he runs.

"I'm not rooting for the whole thing to implode," says Kaplan. "I just think the really silly ideas have to go." Indeed, some of the Fucked Company favorites read like bad jokes. " was a portal for breakfast cereal. I don't think you heard me. FLAKE.COM WAS A PORTAL FOR BREAKFAST CEREAL," reads one of Kaplan's news items. "I like breakfast cereal like the next guy, but sites like these make me so angry -- not to mention VCs who support crap like this. 'I'm discouraged, and I'm essentially broke,' says the founder." How can one not gloat?

At the same time, the site has become a kind of support group for those who worked at the Flake.coms of the world. "The most feedback I get from the site is from people who were laid off from the companies I list," Kaplan says. "I've gotten as many as 100 emails that say, 'I was laid off and I don't know what to do, but I came to your site and saw that it happened to 20 other companies on the same day.' It makes them feel like they're not alone. Somebody recently emailed me and said they know I'm not making any money from the site, but I should be because of all the money that this person has saved in therapy."

Then, of course, there are those who were never invited to the party to begin with, many because they didn't fit into the youth culture of startups. Over and over on Fucked Company's bulletin boards, workers in their 30s and 40s express rage at the arrogant kids who assumed that older people couldn't grasp the infant industry. The dotcom industry's ageism is one reason why 38-year-old Linda Laubenheimer is finding such satisfaction in the current rash of startup failures. "Thirty-eight is young, except in the valley," she says. "In the valley I'm over the hill, and I really resent it. I won't be considering myself middle-aged until I'm 45, and being treated like I'm a dinosaur is offensive."

A regular on both Fucked Company and NetSlaves, Laubenheimer currently works as a release engineer for a software company. But though she's involved in a thriving industry, Laubenheimer herself hasn't benefited much, because she's been stuck in temp work, without stability or benefits. "Contract or temporary labor is a whole underclass of people that the valley sort of uses up and spits out," she says caustically.

Its not just ageism that Laubenheimer feels has worked against her. Since her early 30s, she's been partly paralyzed on her right side. Her disability doesn't interfere with her performance, she insists, but she believes young people are especially uncomfortable with her handicap. "There's a very strange reaction by younger people in interviews when they realize, 'Oh my God, this could happen to me,' " she says. "They can't deal with the fact that I can't run up the stairs."

So even as she worries about being laid off from her current gig, she finds solace in uniting with her fellow naysayers online. "It's fun to say, 'I told you so,' " she says. "When some guy in a BMW cuts you off on the freeway, you can just smile knowing the dotcom he works for is going to go under."

She continues, "Fucked Company is sort of like the phenomenon that makes people slow down and look at a car wreck to see how many bodies are on the ground and say, 'Hey, I'm not one of them yet.' It's the feeling that you get when people are lording something over you and then you see them a few years later and they're in the dumps. The bigger they are, the harder they fall."

While there's an obvious acridity animating these websites, there's also a direct and very positive challenge to the workaholic values that dominate the culture of the Valley. Recently, when laid off all its employees and 70 percent of them volunteered to work for free while the company searched for funding, many in the media treated the story as an inspirational tale of loyalty and camaraderie. Those on NetSlaves and Fucked Company, though, point out the sickness of the situation. Bill Lessard, one of the founders of NetSlaves, says that what's happening at is a kind of office Stockholm syndrome that shows how much work has come to supercede everything else in American life.

"That's what's going on in our society these days as a whole," he says. "Turn on one of the major networks any given night of the week. Chances are you're going to see a sitcom about people at a job. Twenty years ago, you had shows about families. Now job is the family. And the Internet industry is like what's going on in the rest of the economy on crack."

For the past few years, there has been both intense social and professional pressure to accept 80-hour workweeks. Now, says Lessard, many of those who are turning to websites like his are realizing that they've been exploited. "That's why there's all this rage coming out, rage not just at their employers but at themselves for having been so foolish," he says.

This new sense of wariness about the dotcom world seems to be having an effect on people's employment choices. John Rosica, owner of the Silicon Valley employee recruitment firm MRI, says he can see the bubble deflating. "Candidates are looking more carefully at companies before they quit their current jobs, asking themselves, 'Do they have a legitimate business? Are they going to be around next week?' "

He anticipates lots of bitterness among those lured to dotcoms by promises of stock-option wealth only to see their companies fizzle. "I can only imagine some of these people who came out here and bought houses with these options. I'm sure there are people who live just at or slightly outside their means. If things shrink a little bit, they're going to be in a world of hurt," he says. At least thanks to, and, they'll have company in their misery.

Friends in High Places

It's the third call of the day from my friend Phil, updating me on his latest plans to start a new magazine. The phone calls follow on the heels of about a half-dozen emails he's blasted out since midnight on the same subject. No matter that we haven't spoken for over a year; he picks up the conversation as if we were interrupted in mid-sentence. Phil's already talked to big honchos who will pony up venture capital, he says, and he's ready to tap a half-dozen folks to sit on this new magazine's board of directors. He banged out the business plan around 6 this morning, so I should receive it in the mail in a few days to review and add my comments. On second thought, maybe he'll email it.

This is Phil's third magazine concept in as many years. There was the time he was going to move to Russia and start an English-speaking journal for entrepreneurs (Phil doesn't speak Russian). Then there was the monthly glossy aimed at hip middle-agers. But this latest one may be his best idea yet, embracing a concept Phil has lived with intimately. It has left him at various times famous, hospitalized, wealthy, homeless, medicated and, finally, on disability. Although he's still toying with titles -- Up the Down Staircase or See-Saw Scenes, for example -- he's already picked out the subtitle for his new magazine: "Better Living for Manic-Depressives."

Phil has what the shrinks call bipolar disorder, what you and I know better as manic-depression. It affects people with various degrees of severity, but is most often characterized by moods swinging from euphoria, grandiose thinking, hallucinations and delusions at one end of the pendulum to tar-thick, suicidal depression at the other. That Phil came up with this idea of a monthly missive for other bipolars during his latest manic phase paints an entertaining trompe l'oeil of our flurry of communications.

If his latest brainstorm lasts longer than his hypomanic phase -- typically about four days -- Phil may find an ever-expanding subscription list for See-Saw, or whatever he ends up calling it. Due to a variety of reasons -- mental illness' lessening stigma, better diagnostic tools and, perhaps, an ever-widening lasso around what defines this particular disorder -- more folks with manic depression are starting to survive, if not thrive, in the mainstream. Silicon Valley and the Bay Area are a hotbed.

Phil is but one of at least three people in my circle diagnosed with bipolar disorder. There's my friend Kimberly, who's checked into the mental-health unit about four times in the past 10 years. Although we live a state apart, I know when a bad one is coming on. She's a live wire by nature, but every so often, those wires start crossing. She tells me of jumbled, racing thoughts and then, ominously, she starts ducking my phone calls. I know that the depression and shame are shoulder-to-shoulder, and it's time to put her someplace where someone else has the keys.

Then there's my neighbor Stella, a delightful woman who creates stunning gardens around her hillside home. Periodically, she will drop by to visit late at night, breathless from her rapid-fire delivery of conspiracy theories. Once the mania told Stella that it was a good idea to jump on a plane to Europe and live on park benches for six weeks, which she did. She doesn't talk about it much, but people were kind to her, she says.

Deep End of the Ocean

It's not that i'm lucky enough to surround myself with interesting high-intensity people, mind you. A quick check with other colleagues and acquaintances finds that just about everyone knows someone with bipolar disorder -- even if they don't have a name for it yet.

Harrison Pope, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains that the incidence of manic-depression in the general U.S. population -- about 1 percent, or currently about 2 million people -- has remained relatively constant throughout history. We're not getting crazier, opines Pope, it's that manic-depression is moving out of the shadows.

He points to three reasons.

"It's publicly more acceptable to reveal you have a psychiatric illness," Pope says. "Also, until the last 20 years, many with bipolar disorder were misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. And, there's been tremendous advances in treating bipolars."

The illness' duality has been recognized since long before Freud and his profession showed up on the scene.

"The ancient subcategories of madness tended to revolve around mania and melancholia," says Andrew Scull, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at UC-San Diego, who focuses on society and mental health. Manic-depression, like all physical or mental abnormalities, was seen through the prevailing culture at the time.

"In the 17th century, there was an enormous range of explanations," Scull explains. "Like astrology, witchcraft, the devil or the divine." By the mid-20th century, many mental illnesses, including manic-depression, were thought to be treatable by a stint on the psychiatric couch, laying blame on one's forebears.

"The amount of blame that those early models put on parent figures was great," says Scull, who notes that neurobiology's advent has belatedly removed Mom and Dad from many psychiatric patients' hit list. It looks more and more like Phil's dizzying heights and crashing lows emanate from his brain's synapses and neurons, from complex and still-mysterious biochemical interactions. Phil could blame his forebears if he wanted to; evidence is pointing a weighty finger toward manic-depression as a genetic disease.

If the truth be known, bipolars are, generally speaking, in good company. It is no mere coincidence that Phil is a tremendously gifted writer, editor and musician, or that Stella paints masterpieces with lavender and salvia, foxgloves and dahlias. Pondering the link between madness and creativity has nurtured countless novels, biographies and, in the past 100 years or so, clinical studies.

More recently, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professor of psychiatry Kay Redfield Jamison addressed this in a book that examines manic depression's relationship with the artistic temperament. Titled Touched by Fire (1993, Free Press: New York), it reviews studies that found depressive and manic-depressive illness in at least half of the well-known composers and visual artists reviewed. Another study found that 43 percent of writers interviewed suffered from bipolar disorder, compared with 10 percent among the control group.

The fire of manic-depression has illuminated a long line of extraordinary talent, from Gustav Mahler to Kurt Cobain in the music world, from Gauguin to Georgia O'Keeffe on canvas, and from Dylan Thomas to Virginia Woolf in the written word.

The narcissism and omnipotence that accompanies many a manic-depressive has also served many of the world's leaders, for better or for worse. Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill have all been posthumously diagnosed as bipolar.

Peak Performance

Although manic-depression appears wedded to the Muse, it is sometimes a short-lived marriage due to one of the illness's most devastating side effects: suicide. Phil and Kimberly tell me they periodically fight with the voice that says to end it all. Fortunately, they are still alive to do battle. On average, 20 percent of manic-depressives die by their own hand. According to a study in Jamison's book, suicide is almost 80 times more likely among patients with bipolar or unipolar (depressive) illness.

On one hand, there is a brutal finality that Hemingway found at the wrong end of a shotgun or Plath found in her oven. But then again, there is mania's explosive high before it takes its sufferer over the cliff.

"It's the only catastrophic illness that allows you to become euphoric and very creative over short periods of time," Phil explains when I call and ask him for more information about manic-depression. "It's like a cocaine high."

Phil knows both real well. A manic episode propelled him to start a magazine for the AA recovery crowd while he was still drying out from a particularly bad bout of booze and cocaine. The magazine debuted at the height of the self-help movement during the mid-1980s and became a huge success.

"I was at the peak of my performance when [the magazine] got established," Phil recalls, then sighs. "Unfortunately, your manic stages don't last."

As with a cocaine high, what begins as euphoria, omnipotence and brilliance soon moves to a hundred different thoughts trying to shove one another out of the way. The mania snakes out of control like a runaway locomotive -- restlessness, irritability, maybe violence or those voices that sound like they're coming from a cheap transistor radio, and eventually, lockdown. Or, if you work in the high-tech industry, back to writing more code.

"I can work effectively even when I'm wigging, even when I'm hallucinating, even when I'm severely depressed," says Mike Crawford, a Silicon Valley software developer who consults worldwide. While the artist lofts of SoHo and studios of Tinseltown bask in the incandescence of manicdepression, Silicon Valley may run a close third as another safe haven for brilliant madness like Crawford's.

"I chose programming so I could stay up all night," Crawford says. He has always had weird sleep habits, irregular hours that were stretched further by his manic episodes. Like many bipolars, Crawford's first experience was with disabling depression in his teens, which returned when Crawford enrolled in CalTech as a young adult.

That darkness lifted by summer, and Crawford remembers feeling on top of the world. Although he had wanted to be a scientist his whole life, Crawford suddenly decided he knew all there was to know about physics and abruptly changed his major to literature. Such began the first of his rounds in hospitals, accompanied by what often happens in the early stages of manic-depression -- a wrong diagnosis. Professor Jamison estimates that patients often live with manic depression for at least 10 years before it is properly diagnosed.

Crawford was lucky; he was correctly diagnosed after that first year. However, that didn't keep the mania from busting through. "I've only gotten severely manic about five times in my life," Crawford figures, "but they've been whoppers." The past five years have been relatively quiet for Crawford. The answer for him -- and many manic-depressives -- is tinkering with medications, a process that can take years before the magical alchemy is achieved.

For Crawford, freedom comes from letting people know about his illness. "If people are going to live with mental illness, someone has to do it," he shrugs.

Crawford also put up a page on his website that addresses the relationship between high-tech work and manic-depression.

"The response has been overwhelming," Crawford says. Although he tries to keep up with correspondence generated by the website, Crawford says he receives four or five requests a day for more information, often from other programmers who wonder if they are also manic-depressive.

"Programming is more tolerant of eccentric activity," Crawford says. "Even though I might have been weird, I was a good worker."

Cycle Enthusiast

Like crawford, Diana Grippo has found a comfortable niche in the high-tech world, but that wasn't always so. She tried working for Intel, but its stark cubicles were sucking out her life. "No outside, no music, no plants -- my soul was dying," Grippo remembers. She switched to marketing for a smaller company and, like Crawford, makes no secret of her illness.

Although Crawford has had less than a half-dozen manic episodes in his life, Grippo is what is known as a "rapid cycler."

"I used to think that the smell of a hospital gave me my period," Grippo says. "Then I realized that, every month when I was premenstrual, I'd get psychotic, arrested and locked up."

She pauses. "It took me a long time to figure that out."

Like Crawford, Grippo suffered a severe bout of depression when she was younger. When it finally lifted, the young woman was euphoric, then confused and finally, delusional. "Going up is really fun," she laughs. "If I could only bottle that feeling, I'd be rich."

Although Grippo used alcohol to self-medicate the moods, she was two years sober when the madness drove her to homelessness. After almost two dozen hospitalizations, Grippo finally found the right recipe of medications.

One would think that the ticket that gets punched over and over -- jails, hospitals, institutions -- would get a manic-depressive to seek out help when things start looking too good or too bad. But the reason that Grippo kept finding herself in handcuffs, or that Stella decides one morning to fly to Europe that afternoon, is something the professionals call "anosognosia" (pronounced ah nah sog no' see ya). It's the inability to recognize that the cheese is slipping off the cracker.

Phil tells of the time he was escorted to a mental-health ward during one high-flying episode. Asked to provide information about himself and his illness, he could not stop at filling in the blanks. Instead, he edited and rewrote the intake form itself.

"It's a biological phenomenon," Pope explains. "The region of the brain that is able to distinguish what is real is affected by the mania. Even those who've had several episodes of manic behavior can't tell [when an episode is imminent]."

For manic-depressives like Phil, Mike and Diana, lithium, Depakote, Inderal, Risperdal and a dozen other concoctions marshal a thin pharmaceutical line between here and hell. But anosognosia isn't the only barrier to taking those meds.

"If you think you're Jesus Christ," figures Pope, "why would you want to lose that?"

Diana tells a particularly harrowing anecdote of being gang-raped while living on the streets. I watched Phil destroy a thriving business, burn through his elderly parents' life savings and tumble into a solitary life on disability. And still, I envy them those days of pure ecstasy and omnipotence -- of not even being able to fathom the grip of insecurity and neurosis.

"There's no fear," Grippo says. And how could there be, when the Almighty Himself had picked you to be His messenger?

It's bad enough when the designated medications steal that. But imagine if the pills left in its place a flat and affectless emotional landscape, tremors, a perennially tinny taste in the mouth and nausea. This is the legacy of lithium, one of the first medications -- and still the most commonly prescribed -- for manic-depression. Since it began being widely prescribed in the 1970s, lithium has been replaced or supplemented by a wide range of medications. The good news is that each new generation of mood stabilizers is getting better. The bad news is that taking one's meds -- whether it's for manicdepression or for bronchitis -- is a weak spot in the human psyche.

"Patients of all types are noncompliant," Pope says. "Epileptics throw away their meds and are surprised when they get a seizure. Diabetics don't take their insulin. It's just human in some ways."

Despite the life-threatening nature of Grippo's mental illness, damned if that siren call of mania doesn't still beckon. "I know I still go up a little each month," says Grippo, "but I relish it."

When the thoughts begin racing each month, Grippo starts writing. She harnessed those thoughts and ended up creating a program for at-risk adolescents called Spirits Underground. Using a documentary format to let kids tell their own stories, Grippo hopes to develop a television program focusing on teens who have been to hell and back.

"I think it's one of the reasons I'm feeling better," Grippo says. "I knew I was supposed to do something for teenagers."

Like virtually every manic-depressive, Phil put the bottle of lithium back on the shelf several times over the years, each time with disastrous results. But he was beginning to think that medicated life wasn't much better. Not long before our most recent series of communications, Phil had been sleeping -- for about 14 months straight. A full day lasted about an hour and a half, and then it was back to bed. Forget about creativity; Phil was lucky if he could get his laundry done once a month. But with dogged prescription-shuffling, Phil started gaining a few more hours in the day. Then, in what must have been an inspired moment for the former voice of drug-free living, Phil lit up a joint one evening. The Muse returned, and Phil discovered he could summon just enough of the mania to be effective. Clinicians call it hypomania, that glorious phase for a bipolar when ideas flow like cool mountain streams, and the world is once again populated with fabulous, wonderful people. Life is good, but it hasn't reached meltdown good, where one jets off to Vegas and bets the house, or trashes the nearest police precinct.

Phil is convinced that marijuana allows him to achieve every manic-depressive's dream -- a controlled "up." These herb-induced hypomanic states are no doubt couched in a grander, more long-term curve of generally feeling better. But Phil isn't about to look this gift pony in the mouth; he smokes and writes, happily churning out page after page of his autobiography. Phil tells me his psychiatrist finds this herbal therapy "interesting." But shrinks are good at sitting back, waiting to see if the patient's experiment succeeds or fails.

Designer Labels

Manic-depression plays out along a wide spectrum -- and perhaps growing wider all the time. Unlike diseases with physical markers -- diabetes, for example, or HIV -- bipolar disorder requires a best-guess diagnosis based on a constellation of symptoms. According to Pope, delusional and hallucinating manic-depressives were often misdiagnosed as schizophrenics, resulting in ineffective treatment. Then there's the milder weather down at the other end of the range. When I mentioned this article idea to another acquaintance, she announced, "Well, I'm cyclothymic, you know." Yup, cyclothymia is tucked away in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Third Edition, Revised, that bible of mental dysfunction put together by the American Psychiatric Association. Cyclothymia's description -- "presence of numerous hypomanic episodes ... and numerous periods of depression" -- sounds suspiciously like what you and I used to call moody, intense. What Sinatra crooned as "riding high in April, shot down in May." In short, about everyone nowadays who hasn't found better living through Prozac.

"At what point do you pathologize that?" asks UC-Berkeley's Scull rhetorically. "All of us have elements in our lives that we would wish elsewise. There's some comfort in 'It's not my fault.' "

While my cyclothymic acquaintance may find solace in a label to hang her hat on, Phil thinks his mental illness sucks. "I wouldn't wish manic-depression on my worst enemy," he says flatly. He ticks off the ruined marriages, the nut wards and a booze-pickled liver as casualties in manic-depression's devastating path.

But Phil has a theory, one also pondered by Jamison in Touched by Fire. "They're probably going find the manic-depressive gene one day," he figures. "And when scientists do, one of the first things they're gonna want to do is weed it out.

"And when they do," Phil continues, "It's going be a much more mundane world. How many more Beethovens will there be?"

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Click here for the full text of this article on the Web site of the San Jose Metro.

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