Sacramento News & Review

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Are You Being Tracked?

It looks fairly innocuous, a metal-and-plastic square with wires coiled up like an angular snail, a lot like the anti-theft tag you'd find if you pried apart a book you'd just bought at a chain store. But it's a Radio Frequency Identification tag, RFID for short, and each one has a tiny antenna that can broadcast information about the product, or person, to which it is attached.

To the industry that makes and markets RFID, it's simply the next logical step from bar codes: providing a cheap, easy way to keep products on the shelves, consumers happy and companies making money.

But to many privacy-rights advocates, RFID tags could be the forerunner to nightmare scenarios in which RFID technology is the Trojan horse that brings Big Brother into your home, snooping through your medicine cabinets, fridge and underwear drawer to find out what you do, buy and believe, and, ultimately, what you are.

This small tag has, so far, largely flown under the radar of consumers and the mainstream press. But in early October, privacy-rights advocates Katherine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre published a book, "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID," that has RFID proponents on the defensive.

The book holds up plenty of evidence to back up the fears of people who otherwise might be written off as tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists: IBM taking out a patent for a "person-tracking unit" that uses RFID tags to identify individuals, their movements and purchases in stores. Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart collaborating on a test that put cameras on a store shelf in Oklahoma and watched customers pluck lipsticks off an RFID-enabled shelf. A Sutter County grade school's experimental program requiring students to wear RFID-enabled badges to track their on-campus movements, thanks to supplies donated by the InCom Corp. based 50 miles northwest of Sacramento.

And the federal government plans to put RFID tags in passports, prescription medications and perhaps driver's licenses and postage stamps. One day, the "Spychips" authors fear, the tiny tags could be on everything from candy bars to dollar bills, compromising both privacy and personal security.

"I think the industry is waiting until they've done adequate PR to where the public will really embrace it," Albrecht said. "They want to get the infrastructure in place [and] find ways to integrate this technology in a way that is not going to scare people. They envision these things in our homes and our refrigerators and in the doorway of our kids' bedrooms."

In the weeks after "Spychips"' release, RFID supporters retaliated with rebuttals calling the book at best a futuristic fairy tale and at worst a delusional pack of lies by fringe alarmists.

As much as the RFID industry (which researchers say will be a $4.2 billion-a-year business by 2011) might want to ignore the book and its authors, it can't afford to do so. One RFID company has even bought space on Google, eBay and Amazon so when consumers search for "Spychips," a link to a 24-page rebuttal pops up.

"We felt we had a responsibility to educate consumers," said Nicholas Chavez, president of RFID Ltd., who co-authored the rebuttal released November 4. "They may get first blanch at the consumers through the book," he said. "There's a big fear out there that people will go read 'Spychips' and then go out and tell 10 people."

"Spychips," he said, casts RFID in "this sinister, Orwellian light" and presupposes applications that aren't within the current capabilities of the technology. RFID was first envisioned in the 1940s, combining the existing disciplines of radio broadcast technology and radar to communicate via reflected power, according to a history by AIM Global, the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility. It wasn't until the late 1970s that technical capabilities caught up with the vision and RFID began to be applied commercially.

While "active" RFID tags send out radio signals, the more typical "passive" tags lie dormant until picked up by devices called readers, which can be positioned anywhere from a couple of inches to several feet away. The reader transmits the information to a database, where it can be stored. There's some debate over actual vs. intended read range, and Albrecht says she has registered results from as far as 15 feet away, but "you don't need these massive read ranges," Albrecht said, if RFID readers are placed in strategic locations, such as freeway onramps, grocery-store aisles, floors or doorways of homes. While some chips are smaller than a grain of sand, the ones currently in use on shipping crates are the size of a credit card.

It's a technology that ultimately will win over consumers through convenience and savings, said Gail Tom, a California State University, Sacramento, professor who teaches marketing courses and has written two books on consumer behavior.

And yet, she acknowledged, "if you went up to the average person on the street, they would not know what RFID is."

The "Spychips" book, she said, "alerts people to at least think about it." "Whenever you have new technology, there are concerns, and it's good to have concerns [due to] just the possibility that there could be Draconian and negative things. You would hope the good outweighs the bad," she said. "When UPC codes came out, it was somewhat controversial, too," Tom said, remembering worries that unscrupulous retailers would switch prices on unsuspecting customers.

"Using the analogy of the bar code is a good one, because it tracks the product, it doesn't track you," she said. "Marketers are not interested in individuals. They're interested in segments and clumps of people." A lot of the technology's success depends on how the RFID industry plays it, and Tom agreed it's now somewhat on the defensive. "It may not have occurred to marketers that they needed to publicize this, because they may not have seen a lot of the privacy issues."

Underwear tags and smart shopping carts

The RFID industry's adversaries are smart, passionate and media-savvy. With each new development, the authors of "Spychips" fire off an e-mail press release touting their successes or assailing their critics, turning industry leaders' own words against them. They've organized pickets at Wal-Marts, along with boycotts of companies such as Gillette and European retail store Tesco. (In 2003, that store collaborated to package RFID tags with Mach3 razor blades and surreptitiously snap photos of customers taking them from the shelf, and later at the cash register, in a test designed in part to identify potential shoplifters.) The clothing company Benetton canceled its plans to put RFID in underwear and other products after Albrecht launched an "I'd rather go naked" campaign.

Their message is resonating with anti-government Libertarians, conservative Christians and staunch American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) types. But that's not all. "It doesn't have a demographic," Albrecht said of "Spychips." "Everyone's got a reason not to be spied on."

Try to get biographical information out of Katherine Albrecht, and you'll get some unintended insight into what she's all about. She started taking college courses at age 15 but won't say where she grew up. Along with a master's in instructional technology from Harvard (she's working on her doctorate there), she has a bachelor's degree in international marketing but won't say from where. She's married and has kids but won't say how many. Her family lives somewhere in the state of New Hampshire.

She'll eat a loss before handing over her driver's license to reverse an overcharge at Kmart. She also refuses to use credit or ATM cards, only paying cash. Fittingly, she likes to wear mirrored sunglasses.

"I think I've always been kind of a rebel," Albrecht said. "The ultimate irony is that by being the person who is so openly advocating for privacy, I've become a public figure."

Disturbed by the concept of supermarket loyalty cards, which she feels blackmail shoppers into turning over personal data in exchange for lower prices, Albrecht decided to study the practice for her master's thesis. In 1999, she founded CASPIAN, Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering.

So, it wasn't a reach when, a couple of years later, Albrecht heard about "smart" shopping carts that use RFID to track shoppers throughout a store. She researched and wrote an article for the Denver University Law Review and began attending RFID trade shows in the United States and Europe, where she heard the multiple, often conflicting messages companies were sending to clients, consumers and the general and trade presses.

Also in 1999, corporations and academia were collaborating to create the Auto-ID Center on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus. The nonprofit research project was founded and funded by Procter & Gamble, Gillette and the Uniform Code Council, which manages the bar code.

"It was just down the street from Harvard, where I was working on my doctorate," Albrecht said. In the spring of 2002, she signed up as a member of the media to attend a meeting at the Auto-ID Center, which was in the midst of its successful quest to get $300,000 each from companies that wanted to be sponsoring partners. "I was a fly on the wall taking notes in the back." By then, years into her anti-loyalty-card crusade, Albrecht was a confirmed skeptic and wasn't surprised that big business would want to gather personal information on and track customers, or that it would hope to fly under consumers' radar until RFID was embedded in society and it was too late to do anything about it. "What surprised and horrified me in 2002 was that they actually had a technology to do this."

And no one seemed to be talking about privacy issues.

"I came home that day so sickened and so reeling that I sat down with my husband and said, 'I feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders because I know what's coming.'

"This is going to fundamentally change everything."

At another board meeting at MIT, Albrecht found herself sharing an elevator with the then-executive director of the Auto-ID Center, Kevin Ashton. Ashton, who was not available for comment and now works for a company that makes RFID readers, has told interviewers that item-level RFID tagging will become common between 2007 and 2010, with RFID common in the home between 2010 and 2020. He also envisions an "Internet of Things" that will link every item sold, from a can of Pepsi to an Armani dress shirt, to its own Web page, tracking it from manufacturer to warehouse to transport and beyond, until the tag is presumably killed by the consumer.

"He gets it. He sees the hugeness of this," Albrecht said of the man she considers her arch nemesis. "He embraces this future; I'm horrified."

To track or to serve?

In October 2003, the Auto-ID Center dissolved, and EPCGlobal took its place as a nonprofit entity standardizing what's referred to as Electronic Product Code. Unlike a bar code, which can reveal only the type of product you purchased, an EPC is a unique identifier that attaches a serial number to tell a reader exactly which item you have.

On the corporate level, Wal-Mart has been leading the push toward RFID in a retail setting. This year, the company began requiring the 100 top suppliers to its Texas stores to put RFID tags on their shipping pallets and cases of products at an estimated cost of millions of dollars a year.

"We are also on target to have the next top 200 suppliers live in January 2006," said Christi Gallagher, a media-relations representative for Wal-Mart. "We don't anticipate each item in the store being tagged for 10 to 15 years," she added. "Wal-Mart is not looking at RFID technology to track customers, but rather to serve them by enhancing its supply-chain process."

The industry envisions "smart shelves," which would alert stores when inventory is low, so they could restock or reorder, decreasing frustration and increasing sales. RFID also has anti-theft applications and could help expedite returns, product recalls and warranties.

Theoretically, the stores would pass savings on to customers.

In November 2003, the Chicago Sun-Times reported on a trial by Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart in which shoppers in a Broken Arrow, Okla., store were viewed remotely from Procter & Gamble headquarters as they took packages of Max Factor Lipfinity lipstick off a shelf. The boxes contained small RFID chips, and readers were embedded in the shelf liner.

Although representatives from both companies initially denied such a study ever took place, Wal-Mart now says it was anything but secret.

"There were signs present saying a test was being conducted," Gallagher said. Gallagher said Albrecht "may not fully understand the technology" and that, "because of our size, we are often the target of criticism by these special-interest groups with their own very narrow agendas, which typically do not reflect the philosophies of the majority of our customers."

The Department of Defense has ordered suppliers to affix RFID tags to shipping crates. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called for RFID tags on pharmaceuticals' shipping containers, which it says would reduce counterfeiting and theft, and the companies that manufacture OxyContin and Viagra are already on board. The U.S. State Department announced in May that it was backing off on RFID-enabled passports after privacy-rights advocates pointed out that, lacking encryption, the tags could be read remotely by anyone, including terrorists who could stand in airports with handheld RFID readers, separating out Americans and allowing precision-level targeting. The scheduled rollout had been last summer.

Already, San Francisco Bay Area motorists use FasTrak to quickly traverse bridges and other toll areas, with an RFID-enabled device automatically debiting their accounts. A Mobil gas station Speedpass uses the same technology, as do VeriChips implanted in pets in case they get lost.

More recently, appliance makers have developed microwave ovens and washing machines that can scan bar codes and, eventually, read RFID tags on products to determine how and how long to cook or wash a product. The food industry could tag and track meat and other products, making recalls much simpler. If you have a keyless remote for your car, you are carrying around an RFID tag.

And for convenience's sake, the possibilities are exciting: Load up your shopping cart, wheel it through an RFID-enabled bay that will instantly scan the items, store loyalty card and payment card, and check out in seconds.

Privacy rights meet the spy chip

Simson Garfinkel, Ph.D., has seen all sides of the issue and says it's not a Utopia-vs.-Armageddon scenario. An author and instructor at Harvard, he is an expert in computer security and studies information policy and terrorism.

"The public is largely not participating in this debate, and unfortunately the decisions are being made right now," he said. For example, he said, MasterCard and Visa claim they have deployed 1.5 million RFID-enabled cards with no customer complaints. "The fact is these people don't even know that they're carrying the cards," Garfinkel said.

Garfinkel is a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and a signer of the nonprofit's Position Statement on the Use of RFID in Consumer Products. The statement, which also is endorsed by CASPIAN, the ACLU and various consumer and privacy organizations, calls for a voluntary moratorium on item-level tagging and also seeks to preserve consumers' right to disable tags, avoid being tracked without consent and preserve anonymity.

Spurred in part by the Sutter County student-tagging controversy, the EFF and ACLU drafted a bill for the California Legislature that became Senate Bill 768, and Senator Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, agreed to carry it. The bill currently is parked on the Assembly floor, to be resurrected for discussion in January. It calls for a three-year moratorium on the use of RFID technology on driver's licenses, library cards, student-body cards, Medi-Cal cards and other "mass distribution" documents. It also would set fines for "intentional remote reading" of someone's personal information without his or her knowledge and would require personal information on RFID tags to be encrypted.

"It's hardly a household word," Lee Tien, staff attorney for EFF, said of RFID. "But those people who are aware of it have fairly predictable reactions. [And] the more people know about it, they more concerned they are."

In October 2003, a survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation found that while 43 percent of those who had heard of RFID viewed it favorably, almost 70 percent of consumers were "extremely concerned" that data collected via RFID could be used by a third party, that it would make them the target of advertisers or that they themselves could be tracked through their purchases. "Should the industry fail to educate consumers about RFID, that role will default to consumer-advocacy groups," warned consulting firm CapGemini.

The Sacramento-based California NOW (National Organization for Women) has signed on as an official supporter of S.B. 768 and is joining the ACLU, the Commission on the Status of Women and the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence in lobbying the Legislature in favor of the bill.

"California NOW's primary concern about the use of RFIDs is the threat to women and their children's safety," said Jodi Hicks, California NOW's legislative director. "Women and their children who are fleeing domestic violence need to be protected by having their whereabouts concealed from their abuser. RFIDs are the dream tool of an abuser or stalker, and we must do what we can to keep that technology out of the hands of those criminals."

For Chavez, of RFID integrator RFID Ltd., it's a battle for consumers' trust. "You can't take it personally," he said, but "I do take offense to the fact that they're influencing consumers' opinions of anyone and everyone in the RFID industry as being secretive or Machiavellian in their efforts."

He wants Albrecht and McIntyre to agree to join his company's advisory board, participate in public debates and train to become "certified" in RFID. "If they wish to be credible in talking about RFID technology, they need to be certified." Chavez tempers his criticism, acknowledging that others in the industry have directed "very well-publicized slurs" at the Spychips authors.

Privacy advocates raise important concerns, he said. "I'm all for labeling, and the consumers should have the option to kill the tag at the point of sale." Most in the industry believe in some form of a code of ethics but ultimately want to police themselves.

RFID trade association AIM Global, which also published a rebuttal to "Spychips," calls the book a "great read" for "conspiracy buffs" and says it includes "a lot of conjecture, old news, unfounded assumptions, and a hodgepodge misrepresentation of the various types of RFID--even as the book admits the technology's limitations."

Mark Roberti, founder and editor of the RFID Journal, said RFID is a wonderful technology that is getting a bad rap by a vocal minority. "You can't see it--that's what creeps people out.

"The fact is, everywhere RFID has been introduced, people love it."

Roberti has written hundreds of articles about RFID and its applications, editorialized against the Spychips book and said its authors "consistently overstate the truth."

"They don't understand the fundamentals of business," Roberti said of the idea that collected data could become common knowledge. "Businesses never share information about their customers. The company is always going to do what will make it money."

That's only the beginning of the "misguided" and "pathetic" ideas that Roberti said pervade "Spychips." "The book is so stupid in the fact that it does not relate technology to reality. ... Wal-Mart cannot change the laws of physics."

"They're struggling to read tags on cases traveling through a dock door 10 feet wide at 5 miles an hour," Roberti said, and it's easy to disable or "jam" tags. Read ranges are only a few inches in most cases, and it will be years before RFID tags are cheap enough--5 cents, the industry hopes--to place on individual products.

And nowhere in the book, Roberti says, is there an example of a specific person whose privacy has been invaded.

"Every time you go into a store, video cameras are assuming you're guilty. Why is RFID suddenly the problem?" said Roberti, who is against tracking people by name and is disturbed that U.S. privacy laws are not as advanced as those in Europe. Still, he said, "these are not evil people out to screw all these consumers. These are good people who want to sell products."

"In my view, RFID gives the consumer all the power," he said. "Wal-Mart has no power. We choose to shop there. ... Vote with your wallet. If you don't want someone to put an RFID tag in a product, don't buy that product."

Albrecht, who authored a rebuttal to Roberti's rebuttal, said he misrepresents what "Spychips" is all about. It's not about how corporations and the government have invaded people's privacy. It's about how they plan to invade their privacy in the future.

"Part of what the book does is show industry vision," she said. "Before 1910, when electrical outlets were invented, if you had said, 'There will be a way to tap into a worldwide power grid, and [devices] will be every 10 feet in your house,' people would say, 'You're nuts,'" she said.

It's largely the "what if" thought progression that has RFID proponents so mad about "Spychips."

What if the "smart" medicine cabinet developed by Accenture didn't just warn people, by matching face-recognition software to FDA-mandated RFID tags on medicine bottles, that they were about to take the wrong medicine, but broadcast that information to their family members, doctor or the government? What if the government or insurance companies start using information gathered by RFID to deny people health coverage?

What if the same refrigerator that lets you know when you're out of cheese also radios the information to marketers, who in turn bombard you with unwanted advertisements?

What if police decide to use the passes carried by toll-bridge users to determine via RFID readers that a driver had gotten from Point A to Point B too quickly and issue speeding tickets?

What if you have your RFID-enabled passport in your pocket when you go to an anti-war rally, and government agents remotely scan it and put you in a database?

"That's the more dangerous, insidious side of RFID," said the EFF's Tien of the possibility of surreptitious government use of RFID. "The private sector and the government work hand in hand in many areas of surveillance. ... It's all one big blob a person has to worry about."

"Some people say, 'I don't care if people find out I wear size 8 Levi's jeans,'" Tien said. But what about more sensitive and personal possessions, such as a pregnancy home-test kit, or meds for bipolar disorder or HIV? "There are a lot of issues about your preferences and your beliefs," Tien said. "It's the same debate as the Patriot Act. Some people will say they have nothing to hide, and the government could find the same things out another way."

Tom, the CSUS professor, said that at the end of the day, most consumers don't really care how a technology works; they just think "it's neat that it works."

If they don't like a technology, or how it's being applied, "the power is still in the hands of the consumer. The consumer still has the power at the very end to rip off the tag."

"I don't see industry in general using RFID tags in a stealth manner," Tom said. Garfinkel said it would be a shame if RFID were dismissed completely because the industry is "incompetent" at addressing privacy concerns. He embraces many uses of the technology and especially sees ways it could be used to help blind people.

"The industry is acting very poorly." RFID manufacturers contradict themselves, he says, when they talk about how powerful their tags are and then tell consumers not to worry about them being read covertly, or from a distance beyond the recommended read range.

"Lots of times, things we think are not possible under the laws of physics actually are possible because it's an engineering problem, not a physics problem."

What it comes down to is whether you trust the government and big business to keep your privacy and other best interests at heart, he said.

"I think it's a mistake to simply assume that business would never do anything secret," Garfinkel said. "The government is already following people around. I could easily see us being in a world where this is pervasively deployed. A lot of personal info could be leaked."

Albrecht said CASPIAN's intent has never been to ban RFID, she said, but rather to make companies tell consumers when tags or readers are being used so they can make informed choices.

If consumers wait and hope for the best, it may be too late, said Tien, of the EFF. "Privacy violations are not like a lot of other kinds of violations. You don't see them right away," he said, drawing a comparison with identity theft.

"There's really no reason to wait until a disaster happens until you deal with it. You can do something now rather than wait for a crisis."

One Pill Makes You Better

The first thing was a loud buzzing in his ears, as though a swarm of bees was swirling around his head. Then the hallucinations kicked in. The patterns in the blanket tacked to the ceiling above him glowed vibrantly and then began transforming into the faces of members of his family, faces that turned themselves inside-out and back again. He saw his father finding him dead with a needle in his arm. He saw himself in a beautiful field of flowers. He saw Jesus standing outside the Earth, creating different races of men and placing them on different continents.

While Shawn's mind reeled through this visual cacophony, his body lay quietly in a darkened room in a house near Tijuana, Mexico, deep in the grip of a powerful psychedelic drug. The Sacramento house where he lived with his father was far, far away. Shawn (who asked that his real name not be printed) was in Tijuana because he was desperate. He was addicted to heroin and cocaine, a suffocating habit that had landed him in jail several times and had left him so wretched – even when he was out from behind bars – that he wanted to die.

At 22 years old, he was going through three grams each of heroin and coke every few days. "I had a needle in my arm every 20 minutes," he said. "I was desperate, completely miserable."

He supported himself by selling, out of his car, what he told customers were stolen laptop computers; after he pocketed their money and drove off, his victims would learn that they had just paid hundreds of dollars for a counterfeit computer box filled with junk.

Shawn had tried to quit drugs more than a dozen times, with the help of everything from Narcotics Anonymous to detox programs. Nothing worked. At the end of his rope, he found himself following a tip from a junkie friend, slipping over the border to try a treatment that is as much an urban myth as a scientifically proven medication – and is as illegal as crack in the United States.

The treatment is a dose of a powerful hallucinogen called ibogaine. It is derived from the roots of a shrub called Tabernanthe iboga, which grows in western Africa. Local tribespeople have used it as a peyote-like sacrament for generations. Since the 1960s, it has circulated on the margins of Western drug culture, sustained by its reputation as a potent healer. A single daylong trip on ibogaine, lore has it, can help break an addiction to heroin, cocaine, alcohol or cigarettes.

Now, interest in ibogaine seems to be approaching a kind of critical mass. The increasing number of anecdotal success stories has attracted the attention of serious researchers. Although there is no rock-solid proof, scientific consensus that this strange drug indeed may possess potent addiction-thwarting properties is increasing.

Meanwhile, regardless of what science says, faith is flourishing. A devoted community has grown up around ibogaine – a motley congregation of former junkies, envelope-pushing academics and drug-reform zealots helping to spread awareness and use of the drug. There reportedly are at least two underground activists in the United States who will provide it to seekers illegally. But taking ibogaine doesn't have to involve breaking laws – it's legal in many countries. As a result, clinics are popping up from the Caribbean to Pakistan, offering ibogaine treatment for anywhere from a few thousand dollars to well more than $10,000.

The clinic near Tijuana is, relatively speaking, among the most reputable. It was opened in 2001 by Martin Polanco, a Mexican doctor who was impressed with how ibogaine – obtained at an underground U.S. clinic – had helped one of his relatives beat a cocaine addiction. Polanco's facility, known as the Ibogaine Association, has administered more than 350 treatments and currently has 10 to 15 new patients a month, says program director Randy Hencken.

Hencken, a tall, thin 28-year-old with curly hair and little studs in each ear, was one of Polanco's first patients. He had dropped out of college at 21 to devote himself to cocaine and, eventually, heroin. Throughout the years, he tried everything from 12-step programs to methadone to get clean, but nothing worked. He discovered ibogaine on the Internet, made his way to Polanco's facility and returned with his addiction broken. He since has embraced the cause with a convert's zeal, taking a job as the association's main organizer.

Last summer, Hencken invited me to follow one of the association's patients through a full ibogaine treatment. I met Hencken shortly thereafter in a San Diego apartment that doubles as the association's U.S. office. The place fits naturally in the beachside slacker-student-surfer neighborhood. The front room is furnished with worn couches and a computer emblazoned with a Jane's Addiction sticker. A bike and surfboards hang on hooks in the kitchen.

Hencken, dressed in a black T-shirt and pants, with a thick wallet chain, hopped into an unmarked van and drove to a dingy airport motel. Waiting in the parking lot was Craig, a trim, compact man wearing loafers, khakis and a Nike T-shirt.

"I've got to admit this is a little weird," said Craig, a 50-year-old restaurant owner from Salt Lake City who flew in the night before. "I feel like we're doing a drug deal." And, in a sense, they were. Craig got into the van, and they rolled south.

Craig was highly motivated to undertake this bizarre journey. He was an alcoholic for years, with the smashed cars and nights in jail to show for it. He quit drinking 16 years ago and has stayed sober. But a few years ago, he was prescribed painkillers for a knee injury and discovered that he liked them. He began downing fistfuls of pills daily, scoring them from one of his employees. "At first it was recreational," he recalled. "But then you find yourself doing them just to get from point A to B, and you know it's a problem."

Last year, he checked himself into a rehab center and went cold turkey. "It was horrible," he said. "You hurt from your bones in. I couldn't sleep. I cried like a baby. I'd take hot baths all day and eat ibuprofen like candy." He stayed clean for six weeks and then fell off the wagon. "I can't stop myself. But I know I can't go down that road again like I did with alcohol," he said. "But when you're on opiates, it really hurts to stop." So, when his dealer, who had been scouring the Internet for unconventional ways to kick drugs, told Craig about the Ibogaine Association, he decided he had little to lose.

"I just need to get this stuff out of my system," he told me as we drove through Tijuana, "and I'm looking for an easier, softer way."

Ibogaine, as even its most ardent supporters say, is not a cure for drug dependence; however, it apparently can play a potent role as an addiction interrupter. The drug has two powerful addiction-fighting effects. The first is biochemical: It seems to act on serotonin and opiate systems in the brain, physically nullifying a person's craving for drugs and smoothing his or her withdrawal symptoms. That's a huge boon for those addicted to heroin and other opiates, many of whom shrink from the physical pain of detox.

"It has been proved to alleviate the pain and physical discomfort of drug withdrawal with animals," said Dr. Stanley Glick, a neuropharmacologist at Albany Medical Center in New York who has researched the drug for years. "And there are lots of reports of it doing the same with humans. You hear the same story a few thousand times, you've got to believe there's something there."

After a few weeks, this craving-blocking effect generally fades. But by then, users have been able to detox relatively painlessly, and then they have a month or more free of drug cravings in which to seek therapy, join a support group and do whatever it takes to stay clean.

"It was the easiest detox I've ever had," recalled Shawn. "It was the first time I had a window of time without my head screaming at me to get high."

Shawn stayed clean for eight months, but then he relapsed during a New Year's Eve bacchanal in Los Angeles and soon was back to his old habits. He wound up trying ibogaine again the next year.

"One dose of ibogaine is not a magic bullet," stressed Dr. Deborah Mash, a neurology professor at the University of Miami who has done the most extensive research on ibogaine's effects on human beings. "But it can be a powerful first step on the road to recovery."

The second effect is less tangible and more controversial: In many users, ibogaine induces hours of hallucinations of a staggering force and strangeness – though the patient appears to be simply sleeping. Many ibogaine users say they gained profound insights from this experience, which helps them to understand why they became addicts.

Shawn is one of them. "It touched me like nothing else," he told me, two years after his first experience. "It wasn't enjoyable, but it was powerful." Shawn had been brutally battered by the stepfather he lived with as a boy in Tacoma, Wash. The ibogaine brought some of those memories painfully back to him and helped him understand how much the trauma of those years had to do with his urge to escape into drugs.

But for some, the visions are harrowing, and the treatment a failure. "It's like acid times one million," writes an anonymous naysayer on one of the many Web sites devoted to ibogaine. "I saw God alright – I talked to him. And I was so sure it was real. But it wasn't. It was someone who messed with me and scared the daylights out of me."

This person's account says that others who took the treatment at the same time saw themselves being crucified or raped. "It didn't work for me, and it didn't work for anyone else that I personally met who took it," the writer concludes. (Hencken says this person was not treated at the Ibogaine Association.)

One thing everyone agrees on: Ibogaine is no fun. It's too emotionally unsettling, mentally exhausting and physically stressful to be any kind of a party drug. Its side effects can include nausea, vomiting, loss of coordination and a potentially dangerous reduction in blood pressure and heart rate. There have been several documented deaths in connection with the drug. But, because the ibogaine was not taken in a clinical setting, the cause of death was never firmly established. Some fatalities may have been caused by pre-existing heart conditions made lethal by ibogaine's effects.

Mash is confident that there are more that have gone unreported. "There are some pretty unethical people" giving clandestine treatments, she said. "They just leave patients for dead in hotel rooms."

"That's why ibogaine needs to be legal and available in safe settings," Hencken said. "It needs to be in the hands of someone who can judge your health, your dosage and provide a safe environment."

The Ibogaine Association requires clients to submit a medical history as well as undergo testing before treatment can begin. A doctor administers the drug. Still, the procedure seems remarkably casual.

From San Diego, Craig was brought to the association's treatment facility, a rented house on a well-kept residential street near Tijuana. Only the dining room, which has been converted into a medication-equipped office, and the oxygen tanks under the stairs indicate that it is a medical establishment, of sorts.

The doctor treating Craig was Francisco Canez, a calm, round-faced man who splits his time between the association and a hospital emergency room. Craig sat with his arms crossed, looking more than a tad nervous as Canez reviewed his file and calculated his ibogaine dosage. From a small jar, he shook out three gelatin capsules filled with white powder and handed them to Craig.

Craig looked speculatively at the first pill, which he was to take to make sure he wouldn't have an allergic reaction. "Well, I've put all kinds of things in my body," he said, shrugging. Down the hatch. Half an hour later, having evinced no untoward initial responses, he swallowed the other two pills.

Canez then took him into a bedroom – where sheets of Styrofoam covered the windows and a CD softly played rainforest sounds – and attached him to a heart monitor next to the bed. The monitor's graph fluttered peacefully as the ibogaine gradually pulled Craig away. After a while, he just lay there silently, engulfed in a hallucinogenic hurricane.

After several hours, the visions gradually started to subside. Craig sat up, nauseated and dizzy. "That was a wild ride," he muttered. Although he hadn't had a painkiller in several days, he found he didn't crave one.

He lay down again and dropped back into his head for another hour. Finally, he revived enough to be moved to another house, where he was to spend the next day recovering. He tottered out to the van with small, jittery steps.

Ibogaine's addiction-fighting potential was discovered only recently – and accidentally. It was sold as a stimulant in France during the middle decades of the last century, and an American psychologist and a psychiatrist dabbled with it in the 1950s and 1960s. It was so obscure it couldn't even be considered a curiosity.

But in 1962, Howard Lotsof, a 19-year-old New York student with a heroin habit and an appetite for other pharmacological kicks, scored some powder that he was told would give him a 36-hour trip. Lotsof and some of his junkie pals experimented with it and, to their astonishment, found that it knocked out their heroin cravings.

Mightily impressed, Lotsof tried to drum up street interest – and a little cash for himself in the process. It never caught on in a big way, but it did find a place in counterculture lore – and got banned by the federal government in 1970. It was memorably cited by journalist and psychedelic connoisseur Hunter S. Thompson, who speculated that "a bad ibogaine frenzy" was the likely explanation for Democrat Ed Muskie's oddly emotional behavior in the 1972 presidential campaign.

Ibogaine's legend grew as a constant trickle of adventurous addicts tried it. In the mid-1980s, Lotsof managed to patent ibogaine as an anti-addiction palliative, and he set up a company to try to bring it to market. An early series of treatments in the Netherlands looked promising, although there were a couple of ibogaine-related deaths elsewhere in Europe.

Undeterred, Lotsof continued his crusade. In the early 1990s, he and other activists persuaded a federal agency to cough up several million dollars for ibogaine research. He recruited Mash, and the two began working together. (They since have parted ways.) By 1993, Mash had won Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to begin testing ibogaine on human subjects. But then one of Lotsof's informal patients in the Netherlands died. In 1995, the National Institute on Drug Abuse decided not to proceed to clinical studies.

"Committee members were not all that impressed with its efficacy, but the safety issue stopped them in their tracks," said Frank Vocci, a federal researcher who has followed ibogaine's progress. "What you have are a lot of interesting, colorful anecdotes. But the plural of anecdotes is not scientific data."

A number of researchers around the country, however, have become sufficiently intrigued to continue experimenting with animals. Dozens of articles have appeared in scientific journals, most of them reporting promising results that buttress the anecdotal evidence.

Mash is doing her own part to advance the cause. In 1996, she helped to launch an ibogaine clinic on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. During the next five years, she gathered data on more than 300 patients who sought treatment there – the largest body of serious clinical research on ibogaine ever collected.

Mash presented her findings at a medical conference last fall in San Francisco. Granted, her sample wasn't representative of America's drug users: Most were white men between 20 and 40 years old, the sort of addicts who can afford to spend several weeks and several thousand dollars detoxing in the Caribbean. Still, she declared that her research proves that ibogaine can be administered safely and does help break addictions. "We saw people with big methadone habits lose their cravings after just a single dose of ibogaine," she said. "One month later, both cocaine and opiate addicts reported cravings were significantly lower. And at one year, drug use was significantly down among testees."

At this point, perhaps the major obstacle to Ibogaine's mainstream acceptance is its scrofulous image. This isn't a medicine developed by white-coated scientists; its anti-addictive properties were discovered by a junkie, and some of its promoters are folks more likely to interest the attorney general than the surgeon general.

One of ibogaine's most energetic boosters is Marc Emery, founder of a clinic in Vancouver, Canada. Emery is a verbose, middle-aged man with bushy hair and corporate-casual clothes. You'd never guess that he heads the British Columbia Marijuana Party and is, by his reckoning, one of the world's largest sellers of pot seeds. It has been his personal mission to bring ibogaine to the masses since the drug helped his adopted son kick methadone and heroin.

Until this spring, Emery offered free treatment in the Iboga Therapy House, a clinic that consists of a plush one-bedroom apartment in a Vancouver high-rise. With his cash flow crimped by business and legal troubles (he just spent two months in a Saskatchewan jail for passing a joint at a pro-pot gathering), he has stopped funding the clinic, putting its program on hold, but he remains supportive. "It was a very worthwhile investment," he said. "The improvements I saw in our patients were significant and astonishing."

Still, Emery's enthusiasm is unlikely to change the minds of skeptics such as Dr. Herbert Kleber, head of the substance-abuse division at Columbia University's school of medicine. "I'm in favor of anything that works, but there needs to be proof that it does and that it doesn't endanger patients," he said. "I've been in this field 35 years, and I've seen a lot of magic bullets. They often turn out to be worse than the disease."

Getting that kind of proof requires controlled experiments on human subjects, which is what Mash is working toward. She has isolated a molecule called noribogaine, which is produced in the body as it metabolizes ibogaine and which she believes is the key agent that blocks drug cravings. She is trying to get FDA approval to start human testing. On a parallel track, Dr. Glick has synthesized a chemical cousin of ibogaine dubbed 18-MC, which he also hopes to market.

Both Mash and Glick think their ibogaine derivatives will give users the drug-blocking effect without the hallucinations – something both believe is necessary if the FDA is to approve their products.

But would eliminating ibogaine's psychedelic side diminish its effectiveness? No one knows. "For me, the ideal would be for people to take ibogaine in a controlled environment and use the experience as part of their psychotherapy," Mash said. "Then, slap a noribogaine patch on them."

Mash and Glick also face a more prosaic obstacle: money. Funding comprehensive clinical trials for a new drug is colossally expensive, and so far, neither has found anyone willing to pony up the full cost. In October, a Los Angeles philanthropist pledged to give Mash $250,000 to restart research at the University of Miami, but that's only a tiny fraction of what eventually will be necessary if ibogaine is ever to be brought to market.

"The pharmaceutical industry has never wanted much to do with addiction medicine," Glick said. "It's not very profitable, and it's bad public relations."

Although there are millions of people addicted to various substances in the United States, many of them don't want – or can't afford – treatment. Worse, from a bottom-line standpoint, an ibogaine-based treatment drug would be used only once – a feeble investment for companies accustomed to cash-cow refillable prescriptions.

And that leaves people like Shawn knocking on the doors of unregulated ibogaine clinics in a desperate search for something that will help defeat their addictions.

"All these clinics popping up all over the world – it's become almost a cult-like phenomenon," Glick said. "All the hype and politics around ibogaine just make my job harder. It means the scientific establishment and regulatory agencies take a dim view."

But the ranks of the believers keep growing. Six months after his ibogaine treatment, Craig says he's staying clean and feeling great.

Shawn had another brief relapse following his second ibogaine experiment, but he says he has been clean for a full year now. He's back living with his father, going to school and trying to get licensed as a real-estate agent. Despite his post-trip slips, he still credits ibogaine with helping him stay straight.

"What I really learned from ibogaine is that I have a choice," he said. "If you take advantage of that window it gives you, you can get clean. It has so much potential to help so many people. I just wish people would look past the psychedelic part and look at the value of it."

A Day at a Time In Recovery

The atmosphere is beginning to break down at the House of Joseph. At this small, church-based, men's recovery home on the outskirts of Marysville, Calif., the guys are losing patience with each other. They're squabbling about details, about housework and money, about unfairness in their responsibilities.

Life at the House of Joseph has always gone through cycles. The challenge lies in keeping things steady, and that's why Aquil Hafiyz, the director, has decided to keep everyone home tonight instead of attending church. The time has come to gather everyone in Freedom Hall and lay down a bit of the law, affirm some of the basic rules.

Aquil has spent the afternoon roaming the grounds, supervising the landscaping that's going on in the front and side yards. He's younger than a lot of the guys, but still he resembles an older man.

These past couple of months, the men have been keeping it positive, working well together. There's been a solid group running the car washes, heading out diligently after breakfast each day with a shopping cart loaded with buckets and soap and rags, hawking washes for donations through the warm afternoon. The men – about a dozen total, ranging from their mid-20s to late middle age – already have tilled up the yard's packed-dirt turf and seeded a new lawn, and today they planted a sapling, installed some decorative cinderblocks and gathered up the clutter in the side yard.

The house is a former rest home, with an extra-wide hallway and side entryway, and a wheelchair ramp leading up to the front deck. It shows the effects of age and neglect, and so it blends into the landscape of Olivehurst, a chronically downtrodden suburb on the south edge of Marysville. But on this day, the place is a little tidier, and the progress has infused the air with a sense of pride and boosted the cooperative spirit.

But those dark spots of disunity are lingering, and they'll only fester if left unaddressed. So, Aquil sends word around, and soon everyone is filtering into the place they call Freedom Hall, a former living room soaked in musty, old-house scent and doused in green-tinted light from aging skylights.

The guys slide into the two old church pews that line a table, open their Bibles to Ephesians and begin reading in turns, like they normally do. And, as he often does, Aquil soon interjects with a comment, adding perspective to the verses. But this time, he doesn't stop talking for about a half-hour.

"The reason we're having this meeting tonight is because we've got to get certain things back on track," he begins, in the snappy, down-beat rhythm that he always applies to weighty matters. "We're a family in this house. We are men, and we should treat one another like men! This is our community, and everybody has to learn how to help each other out – we're in too-close quarters with each other!"

He brings up incidents from days before, brings up Bible characters and Bible verses, his rhythm steady and lively, like that of an impassioned pulpit orator. Soon, it seems he's produced the desired effect, and he begins to wind down. The guys have begun responding, joking and laughing together, and Craig Anderson, a clean-cut, middle-aged man who arrived depressed and homeless from Sacramento two months ago, stands and offers an apology for losing his cool the previous day. There's hugging, and the guys rib each other a little and laugh some more. At least for now, Aquil has held things together.

He lingers outside afterward, in the evening sun along the side walkway. He's keeping track of the comings and goings; several guys are walking around the corner and down the street, heading for their drug and alcohol recovery group meetings. Technically, this is a breach of house rules. The program requires a "blackout" period for a resident's first 30 days, a time of confinement to the house and backyard, a time for thinking things over – for tilling the soil, as Aquil puts it, and the planting of a new seed.

There should be veteran residents or staff members escorting the guys when they leave the grounds, but Aquil is the house's only staff member, and he can only enforce so many rules. So, he overlooks many of them, all the while making sure the guys know that the rules still exist and why they exist: It's the surroundings, the neighborhood. It's because the House of Joseph sits in the middle of Olivehurst, just off the main strip. It's because most of the guys come from around here, a place that's saturated with the very things they're trying to push away.

For a while now, the community of Olivehurst has begun serving as a contrast for an upper-middle-class invasion showing up on the fringe of town. A few blocks south, vast tracts are being graded for new houses. A brand-new apartment complex sits separated from the aging, single-story homes across the street by a 10-foot wall, awaiting its share of Sacramento workers who will commute 90 minutes each day for the lower cost of living.

But here, at Olivehurst and Sixth avenues, neighborhood denizens forever crisscross town – some on foot, some on rickety bicycles and some in run-down jalopies looking as aged and faded as the buildings. People are conducting drug deals, discreet transactions that aren't too hard to spot from the front yard of the House of Joseph. Here in the middle of town, storefronts still sit empty and boarded, although some say Olivehurst Avenue is looking up these days.

It's a place that Nick Romano has haunted for years, alternately nursing and fighting a heroin addiction that has gripped him for most of his adult life. Nick is in his early 50s, but his soft, somewhat hesitant demeanor makes him seem younger. He's not small, at about 5 feet 10 inches, but his build is slight, and his gaze has a fragile quality – youthful and weathered at the same time.

He reminds Aquil about his medication, but Aquil demurs and tells him to attend his recovery meeting first; he can take it afterward. Aquil has been holding the medication, an addiction-treating pill, since Nick overdosed a week ago, having finally downed too many after suffering through the first few days of heroin withdrawal. It was an incident that stuck in Aquil's mind, one he brought up again during this evening's lecture. It's always unsettling when a resident suffers a setback, but there was something else that morning, a comment that was made, and it struck a nerve in Aquil.

It was mid-morning, well after Bible study, after the residents had done their morning chores. The usual handful of guys had stolen around the corner for a cigarette, breaking the house rule against tobacco, another rule that escapes enforcement these days. Nick had shuffled along with them, in his flip-flops and cutoff shorts. As he walked, rolling a cigarette, his movements began to slow. And, before long, he'd stopped moving altogether. His eyes had widened, and his gaze had receded into a hollow distance when fellow residents Craig and Steve caught him, propped him up and called his name a few times. They waited a minute or two and then stood him up, one on each arm, and began a slow, halting retreat back to the House of Joseph.

They lowered him into a wheeled desk chair and then rolled him into the nearest bedroom and eased him onto a bottom bunk. An ambulance arrived a few minutes later, and one of the paramedics, as he began writing on his clipboard, commented offhand: "Oh, yeah, we know Nick. We've been chasing him around town for the past few years!"

It rubbed Aquil like sandpaper, fired his motivation. Nick had shown up at the house a number of times in the past several years, staying for as long as a few days and as short as a few hours. This time, he'd been off heroin for five days – no small feat. But he'd come farther before, only to fail. All of this, taken together, caused Aquil to punch the air in front of him as he waited in the hallway, watching the medics work. "We are gonna beat this thing!" he exclaimed stubbornly, trying to keep his voice low.

Now, a week after the incident, Nick's gaze has become alert, showing more of his adult, weathered side. He's approaching the two-week mark, and he's thinking about the future. He talks with energy about enrolling at Yuba College, about learning a trade and earning a certificate, as other residents have done before. The guys keep up-to-date on Nick's progress, helping him count the days. The recovery program involves selecting a personal mentor, and Nick has told Craig that he's considering asking him the favor. The only trouble, he says, is that Craig has no history with drug addiction. Craig is a strong presence, a man with a certain resolve and motivation, but he came to the house for different reasons, so, realistically, he can't relate to Nick's journey.

Craig is 58 years old. His troubles started a year and eight months ago, when his wife passed away and he began heading emotionally downhill, the pieces of his life soon crumbling away. He was sleeping on the sidewalk outside a Sacramento homeless shelter last spring when a storm erupted overhead. After pondering his despair for a time, he offered up a desperate prayer, he says – and looked skyward to see a lone cloud drifting north, against the wind. That, Craig says, was an unmistakable sign from the Lord, saying, "Head north." And it wasn't long afterward that Craig encountered Aquil visiting the shelter, spreading word about the House of Joseph, a place where he could find the support he needed to start fresh, 45 minutes north up the highway.

This afternoon before the meeting, Craig lingered in the front yard after the others had gone in, mothering the new lawn, which is beginning to sprout around the large shade tree fronting the house. He seems to feed on the high spirits as much as he contributes to them, and he places high hopes on the House of Joseph. That's why he takes it hard when people start bickering over details. He winds up snapping at someone, like he did the previous day.

But now, after Aquil's speech, things seem better again.

The Apostle Michael Sterling lives about an hour away, in South Sacramento, so he doesn't show up at the house every day. When he does, he's the most imposing figure on the premises, a towering, bald, barrel-chested man constantly punctuating his phrases with some variation of "Hallelujah, praise God, name of Jesus!"

As a younger man, Sterling sold drugs in his native Los Angeles, and he eventually went to prison for three-and-a-half years. When he got out, he still had plenty of "juice" in his neighborhood – a strong street reputation, plenty of friends willing to set him up in business again. But Sterling, who was raised a Baptist, found Jesus again, and it was something much more profound, he says, than the "prison Jesus" that often grips inmates. He began acting on his new conviction, leading prisoners in prayer and Bible study.

"I was like Joseph, literally," he says, referring to the namesake of his two recovery homes, the one in Olivehurst and its counterpart in San Bernardino. (Joseph is the Bible figure who, in the book of Genesis, instills strength and hope in his fellow prisoners in Egypt's dungeons, later to become an elevated government figure.) Sterling has since become a Pentecostal minister, and he now serves as executive director of Kingdom of God Apostolic & Prophetic Ministries International, which runs churches and recovery homes around California and has operations in Nigeria, Kenya and India.

When he speaks of his hopes for the House of Joseph, Sterling describes the early years, when there was money for several staff members; when house rules were more rigid; and when the recovery rate among his residents, he estimates, was around 80 percent. For the past couple of years, it's been more like 40 percent, he says.

Sterling talks of pursuing funding through the federal Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program, but that requires resources as well, he says – namely, a person who can guide him and his staff through the process. He suspects funding may be impossible if the house doesn't meet certain living conditions, and there's a long list of needed improvements, but he estimates the cost at around $10,000. "I'd almost be better off going through the private sector," he says.

If Sterling had all he wanted, there would be a 6-foot wrought-iron fence surrounding the yard, with an electronic lock on the gate. There would be a chart on the wall, listing all the residents and their whereabouts throughout the day. There would be enough staff to keep the system running smoothly around the clock, including a resident nurse. As the house director, Aquil shouldn't have to regulate people's medication, Sterling says. He shouldn't have to cook dinner, which he sometimes does, and he shouldn't have to keep track of people's whereabouts throughout the day.

It's because of these limitations that Sterling accepts Aquil's lenient style, admitting it's probably the best approach for the time being. When Sterling visits every few days, he likes to bust Aquil's chops, point out things that need doing and put a little pressure on his employee. He chuckles about that. "Aquil can only do so much," he concedes.

A couple of weeks have gone by, and Craig's spirits are low, although he won't admit it. After spending the day washing cars, he's in the kitchen, browning beef and cooking noodles in pots that are too small for a dozen people. Craig is working alone, with an oven that looks like it's falling apart and pots that he's scraping with a spoon because someone didn't clean them very well.

Most of the positive atmosphere has disappeared. Nick has completely fallen off again; he left the house without telling anyone. The residents say he's shown up to visit since then, with a beer in hand and enough pills to stay high for some time. They say he's working an odd job somewhere in the neighborhood, but no one is quite sure of his whereabouts.

Once he left, other guys copped attitudes and stomped out, going back to their old ways – some temporarily and some permanently. Aquil says a few wanted to make a point, saying, "Hey, if he can come and go as he pleases, so can I!" They're snubbing the house rules, Aquil says, and not showing the respect they showed before.

It's all caused Aquil to change his perspective a bit, rethink his unconventional approach. His expectations may have lowered slightly, but he's still a long way from giving up on his philosophy.

A few days later, Craig is manning the car wash again, waiting for customers in the parking lot of a pizza parlor, across the river in Yuba City. It's nearing 5 o'clock, and he and Doug Galyardt are expecting someone to pick them up soon, to gather the buckets and towels and head home after another long day. Doug and Craig have come to share a trait, both refusing to let the house's atmosphere sour them.

Doug is a soft-spoken, weathered-looking man of 39 who came to the House of Joseph after serving jail time for domestic violence. It was a weakness for drugs and alcohol, he says, that got him to that point. And now that he's lost much of his life – like Craig, but for a whole different set of reasons – he's determined to leave bad influences behind, and he won't let any household squabbles sway him.

"I've got to give the Lord a chance," he says. "Those other guys, they're not worrying about the important things. They're worrying about the little dogs nipping at their ankles, and not thinking about the big dog about to bite their heads off."

The two continue waiting, reclining in their chairs, surrounded by the noisy rasp of late-afternoon traffic. A former resident pulls up, looking for Aquil, saying he has a personal score to settle. Doug and Craig answer politely, and the man drives off. Before long, a young man drives up in a dented sedan and calls out, "How much for a wash?"

"Whatever you want to donate," Doug replies, bending his thick moustache with a smile. The man smiles back and pulls up next to the island, and Doug and Craig, with their steady, understated, diligent energy, get to work on the final wash of the day.

Home Sweet Homeland

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

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

They haven't stopped running since.

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

And this month, there's more.

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

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

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

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The Terminator Beats the Press

Last month, the governor of California visited a Sacramento Costco to collect signatures for a fall ballot initiative reforming worker's compensation. A half-hour before Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived, hundreds gathered around the gaping mouth of the warehouse store just north of downtown. The smell of hot dogs and pizza, wafting from the outdoor food court, drifted over the crowd.

Shoppers came and went, pushing clattering shopping carts past cops and protesters. But reporters were kept under tight control by the governor's staff. More than two dozen reporters, photographers and camera operators were corralled inside waist-high metal barricades. Any media types who wandered outside the barrier were herded back inside by administration officials and told they had to remain there.

"I already got kicked out," said one newspaper photographer, who had escaped the pen and been ordered back inside.

The scene was typical of recent appearances by the new governor, who has kept an unprecedented distance between himself and the press corps assigned to tell Californians what he's doing. Schwarzenegger relies on self-promotion skills learned from a lifetime in front of the cameras to use the press to his advantage and tell the story he wants told. Along with his new administration came levels of control never before seen in Sacramento, including a savvy press staff that functions less as a conduit for information than as a public-relations team that bases its communications strategy on how exposure or access will advance the governor's political goals, not how it informs the public.

The tight control sometimes includes restricting access to a single pool reporter who later shares notes and recordings with those kept out. The restrictions drive reporters nuts.

Sacramento Press Club co-chair Don Andrews, a radio reporter for Metro Networks, said pooled coverage makes it very difficult for journalists to do their jobs well. "Access is critical to the public's understanding of what's going on under the dome that they pay for," he said.

In some ways, the restricted access continues the celebrity strategy that Schwarzenegger used during the recall campaign, when he largely ignored political reporters and editorial boards in favor of the entertainment press, right-wing radio, softball TV interviews and high-profile photo ops designed to be cinematic, not substantive.

That's not to say Schwarzenegger hasn't been accessible at times to reporters. He has held several press conferences and given one-on-one interviews to some reporters. But Capitol reporters say he's less available to them than his predecessors were. And, at the same time, the governor is incredibly visible, often using the press corps as a kind of involuntary conduit for the administration's political message of the day.

That's what happened at Costco. Schwarzenegger wasn't coming to collect signatures any more than to save a buck on toilet paper. He went to get his chiseled mug on TV, and it worked. The coercive appearance amplified the message that if lawmakers didn't make a deal by the weekend, Schwarzenegger would go to the voters.

The seven TV cameras in front of the store would make sure people all over the state saw Schwarzenegger that evening and heard something about how he's working on workers'-comp reform. The interest his celebrity provides would advertise his agenda -- in this case, making the state more business-friendly, the administration's No. 1 economic goal.

Just before the governor arrived, photographers and TV crews were escorted just inside the front door and deposited behind another barricade, where they could shoot the governor's entrance. "This is the second time I've been in a corral at Costco," one TV reporter grumbled. "It doesn't matter what we say or do; they don't need us for anything."

Schwarzenegger arrived to a loud cheer, emerging from a giant black SUV. He strode into the warehouse looking unusually tan under the buzzing neon lights. Wearing a black jacket, gray slacks and an open-collar white dress shirt, he gave a thumbs-up to the TV cameras and flashed a huge grin.

As the governor beamed for the cameras, the reporters stuck in the press pen outside -- almost all of them regular Capitol reporters -- still had little information about the ongoing workers'-comp negotiations. In spite of the governor's campaign promises to bring transparency to state government, the workers'-comp deal had taken shape behind closed doors, in secret, with reporters and voters uninformed of key provisions that later would be rushed through the Legislature.

After he was inside for a couple of minutes, more cheers arose as the governor headed out to the food court in front of the warehouse store. Schwarzenegger pressed the flesh and then made his way to a microphone set up in front of the press pen.

Schwarzenegger spoke to the crowd for two minutes, thanked everyone and then walked off toward his motorcade without taking questions. As he passed the press pen, reporters yelled questions about worker's comp.

"How close are you?" someone asked.

Schwarzenegger turned and approached the barricades. He held up his thumb and forefinger, an inch apart, and gave an update. The pack surged forward, pressing against the metal barrier with microphones and mini-cassette recorders in outstretched arms. In the din of the scene, his answers were barely audible. Then he was gone, 15 minutes after he'd arrived.

A few days after taking office, Schwarzenegger gave a quick series of interviews to five Northern California TV stations. Each outlet got a total of about five minutes. "It was like a movie promotion," said one participant, political reporter Kevin Riggs of Sacramento NBC affiliate KCRA.

A few weeks after his big premiere, Schwarzenegger spoke to reporters in a January appearance at the Sacramento Press Club and set the tone.

"When I built my movie career, it was the press that helped me," he said. "I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for the press." Then he went on to thank the news media for helping him promote the Terminator movies and his recall candidacy, as if everything had been one big promotional tour and the political reporters were his flacks. "I want to thank all of you for this great job that you have done and for helping me so much," Schwarzenegger said. He ended his remarks by half-jokingly telling reporters to put stories about his recovery bond on their front pages. "Don't let me down, now: Cover story."

Schwarzenegger then took questions, but it was one of only a few times he did so during the first months after his debut.

When the administration neared its 100th day, the governor still had not given one-on-one interviews to print reporters. An exception was Charlie LeDuff of The New York Times. Before and after the recall, LeDuff said he spent months pestering the Schwarzenegger team for access -- a workout, maybe a motorcycle ride. Finally, in February, LeDuff and a photographer accompanied Schwarzenegger and some Tinseltown pals on their usual Sunday-morning motorcycle ride into Malibu Canyon. There were no conditions, and no press handlers were present. "If you can get him by himself, he's more forthcoming than his people are," LeDuff said. In the article, LeDuff noted that "the governor was making sure the public saw him" by letting a reporter tag along.

A few days after LeDuff's piece ran, the governor's press staff dedicated the weekly briefing to the upcoming 100-day milestone. Communications Director Rob Stutzman took the podium to spin reporters writing about the governor's maiden voyage. Stutzman went down a list of 10 campaign promises, making his case on each point. When he took questions, one reporter wanted to know when the press would get some face time with the governor. "The governor has had limited access, other than with those who ride Harleys," the reporter said.

"The governor is accessible," Stutzman shot back.

The room erupted in laughter and groans.

"He's not accessible to us," yelled someone in back.

The governor had taken questions 41 times, Stutzman said. Another reporter pointed out that most of those instances were on the friendly turf of conservative talk-radio airwaves.

Generally, the administration doesn't get high marks from the news media for making the governor accessible.

"I think he's the least accessible of all the governors I've covered," said Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, who has covered seven since starting here as a United Press International reporter in 1961. For a few years, Skelton also covered Ronald Reagan in the White House, where access came easier. "He was more accessible as president than this guy is as governor," Skelton said.

In December, the press office instructed reporters to e-mail any interview requests for the governor, the first lady or senior administration officials. Some reporters are still waiting for an answer.

Radio reporters feel especially left out. Though the governor has made plenty of time for numerous conservative talk-radio hosts, he hasn't given a one-on-one interview to radio reporters.

That irks John Myers, bureau chief for public radio stations KQED in San Francisco and KQEI in Sacramento. His interview requests went nowhere. "It's a problem for the public as a whole," said Myers, who also files reports for National Public Radio and for the California Report, which airs on 23 public radio stations around the state. "This governor can and should be more accessible to reporters who are trying to present his ideas to the people."

Capital Public Radio reporter Mike Montgomery didn't hear back about his interview request, either. "The problem is Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't make himself available to people at my level," he said.

SN&R had the same experience. The press office never responded to a request for an interview with either the governor or someone from the administration. Months later, when SN&R first called Press Secretary Margita Thompson for this article, it took four calls and two office visits to hear back -- not from her, but rather from her deputy, Ashley Snee.

Most of the more than 30 Capitol-press-corps members interviewed for this article faulted the lack of access. Some complained that the accessibility problems extended beyond the governor's office and the governor himself.

"They're not really willing to put reporters in touch with people in key positions in the administration to do really substantive policy interviews," said Paul Feist, statehouse editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Others were more charitable. "We have no major complaints," said 25-year Capitol reporter Ed Mendel, of The San Diego Union-Tribune. Sacramento Bee Political Editor Amy Chance said there's more demand for access to the governor, not necessarily less access. There are always tensions, she said, but this administration seems "willing to work with us."

Still, as folks like Dennis Miller, Tim Russert and Jay Leno chatted up the governor during the first months of the administration, it struck some reporters as a continuation of the celebrity campaign strategy that Schwarzenegger used to win the recall election: Play for the cameras and keep the political press at arm's length.

At the end of March, the governor did sit for a round of interviews with 11 daily newspapers and three wire services. Big papers -- like the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Sacramento Bee -- got 20 or 30 minutes alone on the patio with the governor, and some smaller papers -- such as The Bakersfield Californian and The Press-Enterprise in Riverside -- had group interviews.

A couple of days later, Skelton asked the press office if Schwarzenegger would run for re-election. Instead of an unreturned phone call, Skelton got an unexpected invitation to interview the governor on the patio, in the smoking tent.

Stutzman pointed to the round of interviews to counter any claims that the governor hides behind a public-relations team. "We just gave interviews to every print bureau, and I had many of those reporters get up, thank the governor and say this was something Gray Davis never did," he said.

The patio chats didn't do much to ease concerns about Schwarzenegger's accessibility. In spite of that brief window of access, this administration represents a big change from its predecessors.

The celebrity campaign makes perfect sense, in a way, because it makes the print press less relevant and instead plays to TV, which is easier to tailor to the administration's visual needs.

"Schwarzenegger has figured out how to leverage his celebrity toward his policy and political goals," said Dan Schnur, a top Republican political consultant who worked as communications director for former Governor Pete Wilson and for John McCain's 2000 presidential bid. Schnur founded the Sacramento consulting firm Command Focus with longtime friend Stutzman, who quit the firm for the administration.

Schwarzenegger and his advisers know he'll be covered regardless of how much access is granted, Schnur said, and "if people tune in to hear the bodybuilding stories and Conan jokes, he understands how to move their attention toward his administration's goals."

An example was the governor's State of the State address, which included a quotable line on the snoozy topic of governmental reorganization. "I don't want to move boxes around; I want to blow them up," Schwarzenegger declared.

"They knew," Schnur said, "that every [TV] news director on the planet was going to have to use that language. The idea of an action hero blowing things up was just too irresistible. But they also knew that in order for the newscasts to use that language, they'd have to spend a minute or two explaining what he was talking about."

San Francisco-based Democratic communications consultant Chris Lehane, who spun the Clinton White House through scandals, worked as Al Gore's campaign press secretary and tried to save Davis' image during the energy crisis, said Schwarzenegger has earned good grades so far for his handling of things in part because of the administration's skill at controlling his message. One example was how the governor used the cameras that day at Costco. "They've made a conscious decision to go above and beyond the print guys and the folks who do the day in, day out reporting in Sacramento, and use a strategy which they employed in the recall ... to communicate to a larger audience via local television."

Schnur and Lehane both see Schwarzenegger's dominance of the media landscape as closer to a president than a governor.

"Because of his unique status," Schnur said, "he has the visibility and the communications potential of a presidential candidate, so, in essence, you're bringing presidential-style media strategy to the state level for the first time."

In fact, Schwarzenegger's new press secretary, Thompson, once did the same job at the White House for Lynne Cheney. Thompson also worked as California press secretary for Bush/Cheney in 2000 and as press secretary for Dick Riordan's 2002 gubernatorial campaign. After Riordan's loss, Thompson became the Washington, D.C.-based political producer for CNN's Larry King Live. And, during the recall, she had to work on setting up an interview with Schwarzenegger (she succeeded).

Stutzman, Thompson's boss, is the brains behind the governor's media strategy. He previously worked as communications director for then-Attorney General Dan Lungren and the California Republican Party, and is well regarded among Capitol press corps members, many of whom have known him for years. They see him as affable, unflappable and always plugged in. "He's the best I've seen in three administrations," Bill Ainsworth, of The San Diego Union-Tribune, said of Stutzman.

Stutzman filters decisions with one question: Does it communicate what this governor is doing for California?

"It's about utility," Stutzman said. "The reporters themselves are not an end. They are a means to an end. And the end is communicating the governor's message. They're going to report on us no matter what."

Stutzman rejects the idea that the governor isn't accessible. "You'll never find a reporter who said they have enough access," he said. He said the governor makes appearances all over the state and that the way to evaluate his accessibility is to look at how available he is to the media in general, not just the Capitol press corps. "I can't help it if they don't go to Los Angeles or San Francisco," Stutzman said.

Ultimately, Stutzman plays the biggest role in deciding who gets access to the governor: "I make the recommendations and talk it over with [Schwarzenegger] to make sure that we're distributing access in a way that optimizes his ability to communicate his message."

That kind of strategy represents an evolution from past administrations.

Bill Stall observed the change from both sides of the pressroom podium. He started at the Associated Press' Sacramento bureau shortly before Reagan took office in 1966. Before that, he worked for the Associated Press in Cheyenne, Wyo., covering a governor with no press staff. "You'd talk to the chief of staff, and if he wasn't there, you'd just go in and talk to the governor," Stall remembered.

Reagan brought in a more sophisticated press operation, Stall said, and he held press conferences every Tuesday while the Legislature was in session. Though the original actor-governor later earned a reputation for making goofs, he performed well in front of reporters. Stall tried to catch Reagan off guard but couldn't. "He handled himself very well," Stall said. "He knew his stuff."

Reagan's successor, Jerry Brown, hired Stall as press secretary. Brown didn't like press conferences much, but he was easy to catch around the Capitol or at a bar he frequented across the street. When reporters approached Stall for a comment, Stall passed them on to Brown's top aide. "Most of the time, I'd just have them talk to Gray Davis, who was the chief of staff. And people used to joke that Gray really wanted to be press secretary. He liked talking to the press; that was fun."

After Brown left, Stall said, the trend with subsequent governors was to hire public-relations people, with more experience framing the issues, to run the press office, as opposed to journalists. Former Governors George Deukmejian and Wilson aren't remembered for their warm relations with the Capitol press corps, but Davis, in spite of his background as a chatty staffer, ran what many reporters saw then as the low point for access. Davis' performance as governor led to critical coverage, which, in turn, brought his approval ratings to Nixonian lows. Everything went downhill from there, and Davis suddenly found himself watching Schwarzenegger's inauguration.

Stall is now an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, which hired him away from Brown. As Davis imploded last year, Stall embarked on a project. With so much attention suddenly focused on state government, he traced how Sacramento became so dysfunctional, and he recommended fixes for California's complex problems in a series of editorials that ran for two months starting the day after the recall vote. Last month, the series earned a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

A day before the months-long negotiations over worker's comp finally ended with a vote in both houses of the Legislature, Schwarzenegger held a press conference in the Capitol pressroom. Dozens of reporters, hungry for news about the agreement, filed in and took their seats. But instead of talking about the complex debate over workers' comp, Schwarzenegger arrived there that day with Danny DeVito, Clint Eastwood and a few other Hollywood big shots to announce their appointment to the California Film Commission. Before taking questions, Schwarzenegger instructed reporters: "Keep it to the entertainment business."

It was the kind of thing that angers TV reporter John Lobertini of San Francisco's KPIX, who is frustrated that the governor blows off questions that aren't on the designated topic of the day. "He'll just tell you that we're not here to talk about that today. What you get is what he's pitching to the crowd," Lobertini said. "We see him, but we don't hear from him."

Davis might have been relatively inaccessible, but reporters knew how to catch him and get him on the record about an issue. KCRA's Riggs said Davis was easy to catch for a few questions after appearances at the Capitol. "Can't do that with Schwarzenegger. They really keep us roped off and pretty far away," he said. "If they control access, then they can control the message better."

Often, the governor doesn't take questions following his appearances. Typical of this was an April groundbreaking for a Genentech facility in Vacaville. The governor showed up, spoke for a few minutes and vanished without taking questions. Reporters who showed up to cover him were left only with his prepared remarks.

Another way of keeping reporters roped off is to use pool coverage. In some cases, such as a helicopter ride, it's impossible to let 20 newshounds tag along. But Capitol reporters complain that access to the governor is now restricted even inside the Capitol.

Andrews, of the Sacramento Press Club, surveyed more than 30 members on the administration's pool policy. "Nobody liked it," he said.

Los Angeles Times reporter Carl Ingram, president of the Capitol Correspondents Association, has heard the same complaints.

Andrews, Ingram and other reporters brought the complaints to Thompson in December. They received no assurances that things would improve. "There's no real leverage you have with the governor," Ingram acknowledged. "We can't boycott him."

In April, Ingram again wrote to Capitol reporters, seeking more input on pools to take to the administration. "Because of the increasing use of pools for coverage of the governor when he is in public, it seems that we must again express our concern and remind the governor's staff of our continued opposition," Ingram, a four-decade veteran of the Capitol press corps, wrote.

Myers, of KQED radio, said the unspoken rule for pool reporters is that you're supposed to observe, not question. "It's not a journalistic exchange," Myers said. "It's more being a passive observer, and observation is part of journalism, but so, too, is a critical examination of what's going on, and you're not really able to do that in a pool environment." And with a pool situation, the majority can't even observe in person.

For those who do catch Schwarzenegger, he will talk -- and do a good job of it. Schwarzenegger is straightforward in a way most politicians aren't, but he's also impulsive in a way that leads to gaffes. On Meet the Press, he told Russert that former Governor Wilson raised taxes after riots and natural disasters plagued the state, which wasn't true. He also suggested that legalizing gay marriage could provoke riots and deaths.

Yet, flubs aside, Schwarzenegger is his own best spokesman. San Jose Mercury News Sacramento Bureau Chief Mark Gladstone said Schwarzenegger can be funny and self-deprecating while parrying questions. California State University, Sacramento, political communications Professor Barbara O'Connor said, "Even the most cynical of reporters find him disarming."

In mid-April, when lawmakers took a week off, one of the biggest political stories of the week came out of Hawaii, where Schwarzenegger was vacationing with his family. The governor's office wouldn't reveal Schwarzenegger's whereabouts, but Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Nicholas headed to Hawaii anyway. After initially heading to the wrong island, Nicholas learned (he won't say how) that Schwarzenegger was at the Four Seasons on Maui. Nicholas got to the island, checked in at the hotel, went to the lobby and bumped into Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver. They looked stunned, Nicholas said, but "they were gracious," and Schwarzenegger agreed to talk the next day. Nicholas met Schwarzenegger on the hotel patio in the morning. No press aides accompanied Schwarzenegger, just Shriver, a longtime network-television reporter. They spent a half-hour talking about different topics, including the Legislature, which Schwarzenegger said should be cut back to part-time status because lawmakers introduce "strange bills." The offhand remark made national headlines. Sources familiar with the situation said the governor's handlers were irate.

The irony about the lack of access to the governor is that it's paired with increased demand from news organizations for stories about state government, or the governor himself.

Television coverage has changed significantly, though not as much as some predicted at the time of Schwarzenegger's made-for-television electoral triumph, when it was assumed that stations would splurge for constant Capitol coverage. But TV stations are paying more attention to state government than they have since the last out-of-town news bureaus closed two decades ago.

Lobertini, for example, is a new, full-time Sacramento reporter for San Francisco CBS station KPIX. ABC stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Fresno jointly hired a new Sacramento reporter, Nannette Miranda, whose stories air on all three outlets. NBC stations in San Diego, Los Angeles and the Bay Area hired a new full-time field producer, Jim Jacobs, who works with various reporters assigned to Sacramento.

Newspapers are changing, too. Reporters and editors cite increased demand -- or interest, anyway -- from newsroom higher-ups. At the same time, outposts maintained by the biggest dailies aren't really adding new writers. Knight Ridder, which owns San Jose's Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and two other California papers, brought a new editor to its Sacramento bureau.

Though newspapers still drive coverage in other media formats, especially television, the pencil press may not be as important as it used to be in a made-for-TV administration.

"Everything is timing and staging," said one veteran Capitol scribe. "He's running a Hollywood-style theatrical-visual governorship. From the day he was sworn in, it's all been imagery."

Twenty-four hours after trotting out DeVito and Eastwood, Schwarzenegger was back in the pressroom, this time taking questions about the workers'-comp bill that had landed on his desk that day.

He wore a tan suit and burgundy tie that went well with the blue curtains behind him. Senior administration staff lined the wall to the side, observing the 14 TV cameras, 40 reporters and four photographers who showed up to cover the announcement, which would be the latest in a series of huge victories for the rookie governor. Schwarzenegger was calm and smooth, talking slowly. Reporters pressed him to justify why the agreement took shape in secret and got committee approval in the middle of the night after he'd campaigned on open government. Schwarzenegger blamed deadlines.

Hypocrisy aside, the administration still had a big win.

And no matter how much they'd been kept in the dark during the process, the members of the Capitol press corps scribbling in their notebooks would put the news on the front page, just where Schwarzenegger wanted it.

Jeff Kearns writes for Sacramento News & Review.

Travels in a Complicated Cuba

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

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

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

What makes Cuba so muy complicado?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curse/Boon of Tourism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor Healthcare For All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Less-than-free Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuba After the Ban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Cuba is muy complicado.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kucinich Reloaded

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

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

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

To say Kucinich hopes for a miracle is an understatement.

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

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

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

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

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

Witness to War

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

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

The war was finally on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vigil at the Tigris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looting and Burning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Bombs Hit Home

Early in the war, three generations of women from one Iraqi-American family set up a loose vigil around the TV in their small, crowded Davis apartment.

The television was not large, not obtrusive. It sat in a corner, off to the side of three couches that formed a U along the boundaries of the living room. Like many of us in the past month, the women found the TV an irresistible magnet. They watched for hours at a time, spellbound by the bombings, the fires and the steady progression of the allied forces. But for them, the war was not happening in a foreign country. Through TV, they saw their homeland blown to bits, an experience that many Americans can't comprehend.

After the first days of the bombing, the Arabic television station Al Jazeera, via the Dish network, showed again and again the dramatic images of two dead siblings, so tiny that their bodies shared one stretcher. The little girl's uncovered feet rested along one side of her brother's head.

"These are scenes that CNN and MSNBC, they really don't show," said Geed, a young woman who could not turn away. (She and her family did not want their last name used.)

Graphic images of unnaturally bright blood, deep wounds prodded by gloved fingers, and Iraqi civilians wailing in grief passed across the screen in the evenings, coloring the family members' earliest perceptions of the war and frightening them with examples of what could happen to their close relatives in Baghdad. With phone lines down, the family got no direct news, only these televised images from a land with limited medical care, no electricity and sporadic access to water.

As they watched Iraq's defenses weaken and fall, Geed and her family considered their complex relationship to their homeland, and each reacted differently to the destruction of what he or she had left behind after the Gulf War. One woman was so angry, she rose to protest aggressively for peace. Another sought solace through her faith in Islam. The one member of the family who had tried to avoid the war altogether reluctantly submitted to a surprise interview with the FBI's joint terrorism task force.

Looking through the portal that Al Jazeera offered, each member of the family viewed the future through the eyes of Iraqi citizens.

"Iraqis say there was no victor," said Geed's mother, Rihab, as the fighting subsided. Until the Americans have found or killed Saddam Hussein, Rihab explained, they will not have won the war.

"I really don't know what's going to happen, good or bad," said Geed's brother, Asef. "With Saddam, you knew when to keep your mouth shut, and you knew when to speak. ... Now, I don't know what to think."

At 18, Geed was a passionate, smoky-voiced college student and the family's most active critic of American foreign policy. She sat nearest the television one evening struggling to express her fear and anger and found a dozen different ways to say the same thing: "I'm not too happy about what's going on," she said, her eyes straying repeatedly to the magnet, the television. "Innocent people are dying -- kids and families. ... I mean, this is really getting out of hand. The whole country is getting destroyed. ... Those people are, like, dying. ... It's just making things really, really worse. ... They really need to put an end to this." Eventually, she gave up. "I feel really bad and horrible," she concluded.

To show her pride in her Iraqi heritage, Geed had begun parading a full-sized Iraqi flag around Sacramento during anti-war protests.

Asef also wanted the war to end, but he avoided lingering around the television. The 17-year-old spent most of his time at school, working, hanging out with his friends or playing soccer. When he was at home, Asef could sit right next to the TV and willfully ignore it. It made him angry to watch mainstream American news, he said, and then compare that with Al Jazeera's reports of "what really happens to the people." But in a way, the war affected Asef more personally than it did Geed. He was the one interviewed by the FBI's terrorism task-force agents. For nearly half an hour, he said, he'd tried to assure them that he was not guilty of terrorist activity and that neither he nor his family members knew where Saddam Hussein had built hidden bunkers. It still made Asef uncomfortable to talk about it.

If the war made Asef feel exposed and Geed angry, it made their younger sister Ghask more devout. As a sign of pride, the 14-year-old had begun wearing hijab, the Muslim head covering. At home, Ghask removed the black hood that covered her head and neck and sat cross-legged on the couch, uttering pitying sounds every time she viewed some new violence against her people.

The children's mother, Rihab, watched these same images and reminisced about the comfort of living near her extended family in the ancient city of Baghdad. She grew sadder as forces moved toward it. For her, the war wasn't just about the destruction of lives but about the destruction of cities she had lived in, bridges she had driven over and a lifestyle of ease and comfort that she very much missed. In spite of these losses, Rihab remained loyal to both countries. "America is my country," she said in her soft, inflected voice. "Iraq is my country."

Rihab's own mother seemed less forgiving. The older woman, with her long, gray braid and her white headscarf, sat all day in front of Al Jazeera, while fingering a string of turquoise beads and whispering to herself, "Allah." The older woman watched the news with devotion, ignoring conversation swirling around her in English and Arabic. Sometimes, she flashed the same sweet, indulgent smile as the conversation lingered on what life was like in Iraq, but mostly, the older woman fretted silently about her children and grandchildren. "If she's going to die," said Rihab, watching her mother carefully, "she wants to die with them."

When Ghask made her pitying sighs, the girl's grandmother pulled her breath through her teeth in a hiss, as if she were bracing against some pain in her own body.

As the long days of the war passed, only Rihab's youngest daughter, Ghena, a charming 3-year-old with lush, dark hair that curled against her chin, remained her lighthearted self. She streaked across floors at high speed, dragged toys from their hiding places and regularly interrupted all conversation by pointing to a photo of herself and saying in her joyous voice, "That's me as a princess!"

Ghena usually paid no attention to the news, but while the women in her family watched solemnly during one of the war's earliest days, Ghena got very close to the screen and looked at the face of the little dead girl lying with her brother on the stretcher.

She turned back to the center of the room.

"That me?" she asked her sisters brightly.

Very few details in the apartment indicated that the family had come from Iraq. The dining chairs were modern American and covered in yellow vinyl; a white, plastic cloth with red polka dots protected the dining table. In wedding pictures and family photo collages, none of the women wore hijab, and the only reference to Islam was a framed portion of the Quran elaborately embroidered onto a velvety cloth in gold thread.

Geed, sporty in black sweats, sat closest to the television. "Innocent children and families," she repeated, her usual liveliness blunted. "You gotta put yourself into somebody else's shoes just to get a feeling of what it is," she said. She imagined her aunts and uncles, her cousins and her grandfather -- he had refused to take his family out of Baghdad.

Geed got the provocative idea of carrying the Iraqi flag into protests when she noticed how many other protesters proudly carried the Palestinian flag. Some protesters wore Iraqi-flag lapel pins, but those struck her as too subtle. Geed went for the bigger, bolder statement and painted her own Iraqi-flag poster, which she carried as a symbol of her national pride. The fact that she didn't care much for Saddam did not stop her from loving her culture, her people and her country.

When she finally bought a real Iraqi flag, the flirtatious man behind the counter insisted that he didn't resent her request. Then he dug out a Syrian flag, Geed said. She had to explain to him that hers had three stars on it, not two.

Geed protested with her new full-sized flag in spite of the advice of older members of her community, who felt she was being too bold. "What happens if they hit you?" she remembered being asked.

In this country, Geed told them, a person could defend herself. She could even hit them back.

Geed's father, who died in 2001, taught his daughter not to be ashamed of who she was. His was the advice she respected.

“I’m not afraid of anyone but God,” she said.

Most people left Geed alone as she defiantly paraded her flag up and down the streets of downtown Sacramento, or gave her smiles of support. But most people who stopped to talk just wanted to ask the same question: What flag is that?

Geed was amazed that American forces could bomb her country when American citizens couldn’t even recognize its flag, but she didn’t mind educating them. She even posed for pictures.

“I felt good inside,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

Geed only remembered one negative response. A jogger ran by and yelled that her flag was stupid. “Why don’t you come back and say that in my face?” she remembered calling after him. Then, she chased him. “He was faster than me,” she said with an embarrassed smile.

As forces moved deeper into Iraq, there were fewer local protests for Geed to attend, and she stopped flying her flag, but her anger over the conflict only deepened. Sitting in her living room as the war swept through Baghdad and farther north, Geed felt sure the bombing of markets and hospitals and journalists’ hotels must have been intentional.

“Accidents! Accidents!” she said. “I don’t think it’s an accident at all!”

But on the day Baghdad fell, and the American news showed cheering Iraqis, Geed’s interest swung away from the fighting and the civilian casualties. “They’re so stupid,” Geed said, overwhelmed and laughing as she stared at the Iraqis on the screen. “No education,” she said. “No thinking. God will get you in the end.”

While Americans were still getting used to the fall of Baghdad, Geed was already seizing the next big story. The Iraqi citizens looting government buildings shocked and mortified her. “Stealing chairs?” she asked incredulously.

She also laughed at the images portrayed around the world of Iraqis hitting the faces of Saddam Hussein statues with their shoes. “I know what people here are going to think of Iraqis,” she said, suspicious of how Americans would interpret these images. “This is what they’re going to focus on ... the ugliest, the nastiest.”

The younger Ghask had a different take. Saddam is going to find those people, she said, claiming that the leader must have been watching everything and making notes on whom to punish.

Geed’s disgust at the media portrayal of her countrymen came partly from her pride. She’d begun to think about moving back to Iraq. As she spoke about it, the courageous teenager began to look pensive, almost shy.

“I want to go back to my own country,” she said in the early days of the bombing. “I want to visit because when I look at it, I feel that I’m missing something.”

As the war neared its close, her dream of visiting began to expand in her mind and to sound more like a permanent homecoming. It was as if the war were keeping something from her that she had forgotten to value, and now she couldn’t wait to reclaim it.

“Six months at least,” she said of her trip, but even then she wavered. “If I like it, maybe I won’t come back.”

Geed thought of her courage and her national pride as gifts from her father, who had died in a hospital in Davis from complications following surgery to correct sleep apnea.

As the family patriarch, Geed’s father had taken care of all the family bills and all the big decisions. He was the one who had brought them to the United States in 1993 as political-asylum seekers. He and Rihab since had become citizens, but Geed, Ghask and Asef are still in the process.

Though Rihab claimed not to know exactly why her husband, whom she referred to as a journalist and a diplomat for Iraq’s ministry of information, had chosen to bring her to California; she believes it had to do with the quality of life and education. He had not been a member of any political party in Iraq, she said, but he had worked for the good of the country.

Asef remembered that his father had traveled to embassies around the world. Though Asef was too young at the time to understand the details, he later remembered that his father did not support Saddam and that the family did not have permission to leave Iraq and had to bribe people to get out.

If Asef’s father had been alive still, it’s likely that Asef never would have been questioned by the FBI’s anti-terrorism force.

Muslim leaders were warned that “voluntary” interviews would take place with approximately 120 Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans in and around the Central Valley. These interviews were for information-gathering purposes only and for building relationships, the leaders were told; no one should be alarmed.

But the teenage Asef was alarmed when two federal agents showed up on an afternoon, when he was home alone, and asked to speak with his deceased father.

“What are you talking about?” Asef remembered asking the agents. He didn’t let them in.

The pair then asked to speak with another member of his family, Asef’s fraternal grandmother, who still was in Iraq.

The pair carried a thick file of information, said Asef, which included documents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The male agent in black was probably in his early 50s, Asef guessed. The other agent he described as a short, Asian lady. “The little lady,” he said, appeared sympathetic when Asef said he had family in Baghdad. “The guy didn’t seem to care too much,” Asef added.

When the agents asked if Asef would answer a few questions, he told them he’d be late for work. “I was trying to make them leave,” he said, but the agents remained.

Asef remembered a few of the specific questions. Others he paraphrased. He said the agents asked him who he was, whether he was involved in any terrorist attacks and whether he planned to be involved in any in the future, he said. They wondered what he thought of the war with Iraq and wondered if he’d spoken with his Iraqi relatives recently. Asef said that he had, and the agents asked if his relatives knew where Hussein had hidden underground bunkers and compounds. Asef thought the agents wanted him to question his relatives further.

Asef scoffed at the memory later, while snacking on sticky bars of Turkish Delight with his sisters. He said sullenly that the federal officers acted as if he were guilty of something. He also scoffed at the idea that the interview was voluntary -- like anyone would risk refusing.

“I’m not a terrorist,” Asef remembered telling them.

“We’re not calling you a terrorist,” he remembered an agent replying. The pair claimed just to be making conversation.

When he spoke about the encounter, Asef fingered his lips unhappily, his voice low and slow. Only when he teased his sisters did he lighten up. “I sure hope they don’t have internment camps,” he told them wryly. The girls laughed.

After the interview, Asef suspected the family’s telephone and Internet use were under surveillance. Their Internet connection had slowed down to a crawl, he said, and the last time the family got a call from Iraq, the connection was crystal clear, not scratchy and echoing like normal. Asef said he noticed these changes immediately after meeting the anti-terrorism team.

“It’s probably not even against the law,” he said solemnly, assuming the Patriot Act had stripped his family of its right to privacy.

Nick Rossi, public-information officer for the local office of the FBI, couldn’t comment specifically on Asef’s interview, but he did say that the agents who had visited local Iraqi-Americans had worked to build strong relationships with the community. They’d had three goals: to gather information about any local terror threat, to learn about conditions on the ground in Iraq and to assure people personally that the FBI would investigate and protect against any hate crimes.

As for any change in Internet or phone service, said Rossi, it must have been a coincidence. None of the interviewers had been gathering information that would lead to court orders for added surveillance. And that kind of authority, he added, is difficult to get. Besides, if someone were under surveillance, he said with a hint of humor, it’s highly unlikely they would notice any change at all.

Asef’s discomfort was understandable. He remembered the Gulf War better than his sisters claimed to and remembered huddling with his family in a corner of his grandfather’s house during the first night of bombing. He remembered his grandfather traveling outside Baghdad to another city just to get water. He remembered visiting scenes of the nights’ explosions in the early mornings. He also remembered the long trip through Jordan, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries that eventually brought the family to the Bay Area. The family moved to Davis, said Asef, when his parents became concerned about the visible gang violence, drugs and prostitution in the neighborhood around their first apartment in East Palo Alto.

“I’d moved from one war to another,” Asef said.

The family qualified for low-cost housing in Davis, said Asef, and even though his mother teaches French, and he and 14-year-old Ghask have jobs, it’s still difficult to get by, especially without his father.

Neither Asef nor Geed wore any clothing or symbol that identified them specifically as Iraqi or Muslim -- except when Geed paraded her flag. Asef even said that when he was pulled over by the Davis police, they assumed he was Latino. Ghask, on the other hand, had chosen to wear the most obvious sign of Muslim modesty.

Ghask began to wear hijab about two months before the war started. Her classmates wondered if her mother made her, but Ghask wanted to identify herself as Muslim not only to the people with whom she went to school, but to everyone who saw her. Like Geed’s flag, wearing hijab was a symbol of Ghask’s pride in her identity as an Iraqi-American and a Muslim.

The same religious impulse compelled her to start a new chapter of the Muslim Students Association at school. She and 35 or so other members met during lunchtimes and were hoping to install a microphone in the school quad so that people could speak their minds.

When watching the news, Ghask was always the first to notice new images of death and injury. Even when doing her homework, she sat in the same room with the television.

“Before the war, like 10 million kids were already undergoing starvation,” she said at the start of the war, exaggerating already dismal figures on malnourishment among Iraqi children. “Now, Bush wants to come over and bomb them? I mean, he’s just making things worse.” She sounded incredulous, as if the logic simply escaped her.

Like her older sister, Ghask wasn’t afraid to confront those who might not be sympathetic to Iraq. Most of the people she knew opposed the war, but after listening to some of her classmates supporting the war, she didn’t hesitate to start an argument.

Hussein has nuclear capability, they told her. Then, she asked, why didn’t the inspectors find anything? He kills his own people, they told her. And now Bush is coming in and killing more people, she replied, unable to see how that was an improvement. After 9/11, we have to protect our own country, they said. Ghask was sympathetic. Muslims had died in that tragedy, as well, but 9/11 was nothing compared with what other countries had suffered, she argued, sometimes at the hands of Americans.

Ghask's substitute teacher was supportive. She told the class that she’d attended a war protest that weekend and watched some of her friends get arrested.

The girl’s ethnicity and religion were subjects of interest to her other teachers, as well. One of them asked after her family and mentioned that he’d gotten an e-mail saying that Ghask was from Iraq.

Ghask, sitting on the couch among her school work, opened her hands and let them drop against her knees. “So, I guess all my teachers are getting e-mails about me or something?” she said.

Teachers weren’t the only authority figures who supported Ghask. The girl’s growing devotion to Islam even had helped her get a job. When she applied at the local International House of Pancakes, she said, her interviewer told her that it was nice to see someone respecting her religion.

Ghask was hired, hijab and all.

Wearing the covering in front of all men who were not family was still novel for Ghask. When Asef’s male soccer coach came to the family’s door, Ghask immediately ran upstairs and covered her shiny, dark hair with a plain black hood. It made her sparkly, purple eye shadow all the more striking.

Rihab hurriedly spread out her own scarf, which she’d been holding in her hands. She pulled it up over her face and then down over her dark hair and then quickly wrapped the scarf around her neck and tied a knot under her chin.

Asef’s soccer coach was then admitted into a living room apparently filled with a family of modest-looking Middle Eastern Muslims -- who, a moment earlier, had appeared as American as anyone else.

Though each of Rihab’s children mentioned in interviews that they were happy to be in America and thankful for all they had, Rihab was the one who seemed to take the sentiment most to heart. Her neighbors were supportive, she said, her friends at the mosque had helped with her husband’s burial, and she had made numerous friends who attended the university. But a few weeks into the war, Rihab lost a good deal of her general optimism. On some days, she was too sad even to talk about the war.

“It’s almost destroyed,” said Rihab one evening, while watching images of Basra under fire. She reconsidered. “Not almost,” she added. “I think, completely destroyed.”

“Maybe 96 percent of it,” Geed added.

Five of Rihab's siblings were still in Iraq, as were her in-laws, and they had refused to leave the capital city, according to Rihab’s mother-in-law, who made her last call to Davis three days into the war.

“She called,” said Rihab, “and asked, 'Why you didn’t call me?’”

A serene woman with cultured, elegant manners, Rihab closed her eyes and shook her head very slightly.

“I didn’t call Baghdad,” she said, “so I wouldn’t hear any bad things.”

As the war moved closer to the capital city, Rihab admitted that she, too, wanted to return to Iraq. She missed big family celebrations and dinners.

“Everybody,” said Geed, delighting in her mother’s memory, “gets to know a little bit about you.”

At tea time, said Rihab, the girls used to play badminton together, after drinking tea and snacking on date cookies. The older ladies would talk, and the men would gather on the street, away from the private gardens shared by a series of connected family homes. And then at sunset, the family patriarch would call everyone together, and that’s how they would stay until late at night. Around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. the families would have dinner together, and if it were hot out, they would sleep on the flat roofs of their Baghdad homes.

It’s different now, said Rihab. After the first Gulf War, people became more afraid and insular, but before, there’d been “more love, more gathering.”

To retain something of her old customs when she moved to Davis, Rihab grew some mint and tomatoes on her tiny porch behind the apartment. On warm afternoons, she still served tea to her mother outside in tiny, delicate, gold-painted teacups.

She thought about all the organic produce driven through town the day it was picked so that the wealthy families could shop from their front doors. Before the war, the milkman still drove his cart through town every morning.

Rihab explained that her country, especially the city of Basra, was very rich, partly because of the oil wells and partly because of the nearby sea.

“In every house,” said Geed, “there’s, like, four palm trees.”

As an example of the decorative arts of her country, Rihab showed off the delicate lightweight dresses the girls wore for celebrations. They were embroidered in gold, intricately patterned, and in perfect condition. One had been in the family for 34 years.

During Rihab’s reveries, her mother watched Al Jazeera with absorption. Wearing a loose, blue robe and a pair of white tube socks, the grandmother fingered her string of beads and stopped as the sun went down, to cover her head with a prayer shawl, stand in the middle of the room and pray.

And perhaps those prayers were answered. Rihab got the first news of her family days after the fighting ended. A journalist from Al Jazeera who had known her husband called to say that her in-laws were safe. The family still waits for news from Rihab’s siblings and their children.

Rihab’s mother was perhaps the one most struck by the devastation of Iraq. She had come to the United States to visit her daughter, and then she became a captive here, watching as her country was swallowed up in fire and crumbled by bombs and missiles, the relics of the country’s ancient history stolen from museums.

The older woman had expected to return this winter to her children, her grandchildren and the neighbors she missed, but Rihab had refused to let her go.

"I hide her passport," said Rihab, bringing her open hands together slowly as if she were secreting it away in her palms at that moment. The older woman wouldn’t be well enough to run if there were bombs falling around her, said Rihab. And there were no medicines there. She’d arrived in the United States with a bag full of expired medications. With the looting of everything, including hospitals, who knew what the medical situation was like there after the war had started?

“We have food in Iraq,” said Rihab, her finger raised as if this were often a matter of debate. “But I admit we don’t have medication.” She flashed a sad smile.

Geed’s grandmother appeared to understand the gist of these conversations. Once, she lifted one hand and began to beat it very lightly and repetitively against her chest. As she did so, she began to sniffle, though she continued to smile. The family, moved by this, grinned at her warmly. Geed’s youngest sister, the bright-eyed, bouncy 3-year-old, hurried over to one side of her. Ghask slid over to the other side, and both children embraced their grandmother and cooed to her softly as they wiped her eyes with a white handkerchief.

The 3-year-old then ran off and returned with a tube of ointment that she held up to her grandmother. The child assumed that whatever pain the older woman felt could be salved away.

Rihab watched them and tried to explain her mother’s tears.

“She says, 'My body’s here,’” Rihab said, though she seemed to be speaking for the whole family. “'My spirit,’” she continued, “'is there.’”

The Junk-Food Wars

Chomp down on a Big N' Tasty with Cheese.

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

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

Don’t bother us: We’re eating.

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

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

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

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

What’s a public-health advocate to do?

Declare war.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Public-health advocates went ballistic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public-health advocates would love to agree.

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

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

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

“It has to start somewhere,” he said.

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

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

The class exploded in unpremeditated laughter.

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

The Meth Makers

“I hate to be where we’re going tonight," Moore says.

The big four-wheel drive chases its shadow across the Sacramento Valley floor, carrying Moore, Rocky and Ed east, toward the foothills. Moore has been to a lot of bad places, prison being the worst, and he isn’t keen on returning. That’s why he’s not exactly enthusiastic about going to the crank lab tonight. If the cops show up, it’ll be his third strike, and that means 25-to-life in most Northern California counties.

“I hate it, too," Rocky mutters from behind the wheel. “I’m sick and tired of it." Rocky is a clandestine chemist. He may have failed high-school science, but during the past two decades, he’s mastered the process of making crystal methamphetamine. Cooking crank has provided a steady income -- if you don’t count those years he’s spent in prison on drug-related offenses -- but lately, he’s been wishing he’d mastered something else, preferably something not so illegal and insanely dangerous.

Ed, wedged between Rocky and Moore, expresses no such misgivings about tonight’s appointed task. Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t been to prison yet. Or maybe he’s spun from the crystal they’ve been smoking all day. The sun is molten orange on the horizon as the truck begins the twisting ascent into the foothills. Two sheriff’s cars whiz by heading down the hill, away from the lab.

As far as Rocky, Ed and Moore (not their real names) are concerned, the cops are heading in the right direction. Tonight, like moonshiners back in the day, they will head into the hills under the cover of darkness, where in a dimly lit makeshift laboratory at the end of a winding dirt road, they will cook up a fresh batch of pure crystal methamphetamine.

It’s dark by the time they reach the lab, located deep in the woods in a dilapidated shack at the end of a winding dirt road. Here, in the hovel’s tiny cramped kitchen, Rocky will work his own special form of alchemy. They step out of the truck into the inky blackness. Constellations wheel slowly overhead on a cold, moonless night. A dog barks in the distance.

“Man, I hate being here,” Moore says.

A thousand things can go wrong in a crank lab; getting busted by the cops is just one of them, and maybe not the worst, unless you’re a two-time loser like Moore. Think of the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine as a series of relatively complex high-school chemistry class lab experiments performed one after the other, except that if you make one little mistake during any stage of the process, there goes your grade -- and maybe the neighborhood. Most of the chemicals used to make crank are lethal in any number of ways if mishandled; the manufacturing process is fairly complex, lending itself to mishandling. Consider the two men currently on trial for murder in Ukiah after the crank lab they were allegedly operating got out of control, starting a forest fire that resulted in the deaths of two firefighting pilots last year.

Rocky spent most of the week scrambling to find the necessary chemical compounds for tonight’s cook-off: pseudoephedrine, red phosphorus, iodine crystals, methanol, acetone, toluene, sodium hydroxide, muriatic acid. The meth heyday of the 1970s and early 1980s, when many of these chemicals could be purchased without arousing suspicion, is long gone.

Government regulations got you down? Try buying enough pseudoephedrine to make an ounce of premium grade crank. That’s approximately 1,000 60 mg pills, but purchases of the popular over-the-counter decongestant are limited to three 48-count boxes per person per day at most drug stores in Northern California; some stores require customers to sign for a single box. So Rocky had to send half a dozen members of his extended family -- friends and relatives with ties that are more chemical than genetic -- on a mission to hit numerous drug stores in Northern California in order to get enough pseudoephedrine.

And that was the easy part. He had to employ considerable subterfuge bringing all of the other ingredients together. Iodine and acetone can still be bought at most drug stores, but don’t even think about asking him where he got the toluene or the red phosphorus, particularly the red phosphorus. It’s still available from most chemical-supply houses, but as far as the authorities are concerned, there are basically three uses for it: making matches, fertilizer or methamphetamine. A signature on a red phosphorus purchase order is an automatic red flag for the authorities. The trick is to know someone who has a legitimate need for the chemical and obtain an ounce or two from them. In lieu of that, shaving the heads off 1,000 wooden matches will yield a tidy pile of red phosphorus, assuming the right brand of matches are used and the heads are ground up fine enough. After two days of frantic searching, Rocky was able to find a small amount of red phosphorus, enough to make an ounce of meth.

All this hassle, all of this running around, just to get enough chemicals to make a lousy ounce of methamphetamine. This is what Rocky is talking about when he says he’s sick and tired of it. He means all of it, the whole crazy hustle of making speed in the 21st century. He’s just not sure if it’s worth it anymore.

An ounce of pure methamphetamine has a potential street value of $2,500 to $5,000. Considering the total outlay is only several hundred dollars, the profit margin is relatively high. But Rocky, Ed and Moore aren’t in this for the money alone. They’ll smoke at least half of what they make and sell most of the rest to friends, who’ll expect a good price. Maybe they’ll make enough to stake them for the next batch, which is a good thing, because by then they’ll be out of speed, and they’ll be needing it, like they’re needing it now.

Rocky places the glass pipe to his lips and gently rocks the bowl over a lighter flame. The crystal inside the bowl vaporizes; he sucks the vapor deep into his lungs, feeling the speed surge through his capillaries and into his bloodstream. His eyes, which have dark circles under them, seem to clear up, sparkle. He breathes out pungent, chemical-smelling mist, passing the pipe to Ed.

Ed huffs and puffs on the glass tube until vaporized meth belches out of the tiny opening in the bowl like a steam whistle. He inhales a massive cloud of crank, holds it for what seems like forever. Finally he exhales. Nothing comes out, as if his body absorbed the entire hit.

He challenges Moore to take another hit.

“The only time I say 'no’ is when you ask me if I’ve had enough,” Moore says, laying flame to glass. Moore once shot a man, in self-defense. The man lived. Moore wishes he’d died. That was Moore’s first strike. The second strike was drug-related. He hopes to avoid the third strike, which is why he doesn’t mind waiting in the truck, keeping look-out, while Rocky and Ed handle the crank-making duties.

Rocky and Ed unload the chemicals and the lab equipment from the back of the truck. Ed hooks up a yellow plastic safety lamp to a spare car battery, bathing the cramped kitchen in an amber glow. The air inside the shack feels sticky, and smells of ammonia, a telltale sign crank has been cooked here before. Blankets are duct-taped over the windows so no light escapes. Rocky lays out his equipment. Instead of lab-grade flasks and beakers, he’s using fruit jars and plastic jugs, so-called “ghetto glass,” unpredictable containers not recommended for use when conducting serious chemical reactions like the ones about to ensue. The heat source is a propane stove, prone to starting fires in laboratory use. There is no ventilation. Such shoddy conditions and equipment are the main reasons things do go wrong in crank labs, but Rocky has no choice but to “run what he brung.”

The intent of this report is to enlighten the public regarding the making of a dangerous drug, not to provide a step-by-step guide to manufacturing methamphetamine. That can be found readily enough on the Internet. Steps have been left out of the description that follows, and as mentioned, such activities are not only exceedingly illegal, they’re insanely dangerous. For example, just breathing the fumes of toluene, a methyl benzene solvent compound, can cause serious damage to the respiratory system and vital organs of the body such as the heart and the liver. Yet Rocky and Ed aren’t wearing respirator masks. Hydrochloric acid fumes are already filling the air, burning their eyes and skin, and they aren’t wearing eye protection or gloves, either. It seems like a sure recipe for disfigurement, save for the knowledge that Rocky has done this many, many times before, and still seems to have all his fingers and toes.

The process Rocky plans to use tonight consists of two major stages. First, he has to dissolve the pseudoephedrine pills to filter out the impurities. In the second stage, the pseudoephedrine is mixed with red phosphorus and iodine in a process called “refluxing” to make the final product, methamphetamine.

He dumps about 600 of the white pseudoephedrine pills in a mason jar and covers them with about an inch of distilled water, and the first stage begins. He vigorously stirs the mixture in the jar for 15 minutes, until it turns white and foamy as milk and the pills are completely dissolved. He mixes the white liquid with three parts of toluene. Three fruit jars with filters and funnels are set in front of him. He pours the toluene/pseudoephedrine mixture in the first funnel, then through the second and the third. A white mud collects in the final filter. He scrapes out the mud, mixes it in another container with acetone, and starts the filtration process again.

Each cook follows his own recipe; Rocky’s filtration process is complex and hard to follow, as he switches freely between acetone and toluene, methanol and distilled water. He’s been working the meth synthesis for two decades now, and his reflexes -- eyeballing pHs instead of using litmus paper, filtering tinctures through wrung-out paper towels, keeping all three funnels going at the same time -- are nearly automatic. The toxic atmosphere of solvents and acids doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest, but after an hour, Ed is getting impatient.

“I’m gonna see what’s going on.”

“I’m just getting ready to gas it,” Rocky says.

“How much longer?”

“Forty-five minutes.”

The cracked front door barely dents the darkness as Ed slips out. It’s so dark he can’t see his own feet, but gradually he makes out the black silhouette of the pickup truck against a field of stars. Moore is leaning back in the front seat, apparently sound asleep. Ed climbs in on the passenger side next to him.

“I think those two cops cased this place,” Moore says, without opening his eyes. Moore is paranoid, and considering his criminal record and the amount of speed he smokes daily, he probably should be. He really does hate being here, at the crank lab. Not enough to quit doing speed, but maybe enough to at least give it some consideration. He started doing the stuff in high school, because he liked to stay up all night and chase girls. Although he’s almost 40, he’s still doing it; he can still hang with the heavy hitters. There doesn’t seem to be too much damage, except that he’s paranoid all the time. He hasn’t forgotten those two sheriff cars that passed going in the opposite direction on the way up.

He hands the glass pipe to Ed, who huffs and puffs another crank vapor steam whistle. Ed lights up a Marlboro. “You really think those cops were casing the place?” he asks.

Moore makes a snoring noise.

In the lab, Rocky drops a piece of aluminum foil in an anti-freeze bottle filled with hydrochloric acid and screws the cap on. The cap is fitted with a surgical tube. The hydrochloric acid reacts with the aluminum, giving off hydrogen gas as a byproduct. He puts the end of the surgical tube in the pseudoephedrine mixture, and tiny hydrogen bubbles begin coursing through it. When he feels it’s thoroughly gassed, he begins the filtering process again, vigorously cleaning every vessel after each use, so that the various different chemicals won’t interact when they’re not supposed to, ruining a long night’s work.

He works fast, moving from jar to jar, washing and re-washing, keeping one eye on the mixture at all times, adding Red Devil Lye drain opener crystals to up the pH, methanol to add hydroxide molecules. Except Rocky doesn’t really know the chemical formulas in detail, it’s more like he feels his way through the process, using the different molecular weights of the acids and solvents to separate the drug from its binders. After an hour, he wrings out a wet, doughy glob about the size of a lime from the final Mr. Coffee filter. It’s enough pure pseudoephedrine to make an ounce of methamphetamine.

Rocky becomes sous-chef now, transferring the dough ball to a metal pan on the stovetop. He lights the stove, forgetting that he turned the propane on a couple of minutes previously. It’s the kind of error that can make a crank cook’s night go up in flames, but Rocky gets lucky. When the flame touches the gas that’s accumulated on top of the stove, it goes off with a loud “Kapoof!” that startles him. Fortunately, there were no other flammable gasses, i.e. hydrogen or methanol or acetone or toluene, hanging around stove-top level. “God damn it, I knew that was going to happen!” he says. He re-lights the burner and begins breaking down the dough ball in the saucepan, stirring it so the alcohol evaporates out of it. Then he runs it through a filter again, using Heet, an automotive product used to remove water from fuel lines, to draw the remaining water molecules out. The door cracks open and Ed comes in.

“How much longer?”

“Forty-five minutes.”

Ed grimaces.

“Is that what I told you 45 minutes ago?”

“Yeah.”

He picks up the pan off the burner and stirs it, tilting it so Ed can see the powdery white crystals sparkling in the bottom. Ed’s eyebrows rise. The pseudoephedrine is done. Now it’s on to stage two, mixing the pseudoephedrine with the red phosphorus and the iodine crystals. A low rumble can be heard in the distance.

“What’s that?” Ed asks.

It’s a car, about a quarter-mile out on the gravel road leading up to the lab, on its way in. Rocky immediately shuts down the stove, douses the light. Ed freezes. The sound of wheels crunching on gravel gets louder. Headlights can be sensed through the heavy blankets shrouding the windows. Rocky takes a peek under one of the blankets. The car stops, pinning the lab in its headlights. “What the fuck?” Rocky says, and suddenly, the pickup truck roars to life, lurches into gear, and charges toward the car. Rocky and Ed slip out the door, leaving the lab empty.

“I was gonna ram the son-of-a-bitch,” insists Moore. The car turned out to be somebody who’d come up the wrong way and was turning around. He won’t be coming up that way again soon. Moore scared the hell out of him charging at him with the pickup truck. The excitement of the false alarm has eased Moore’s paranoia somewhat; he has abandoned his watch and now joins Rocky and Ed in the lab, where the air is even thicker with noxious fumes. “There is no way I’m going back to prison.”

Rocky’s been at if for two hours now, and it’s time for the moment of truth. He weighs the red phosphorus on the one piece of technical equipment in the lab, a small digital scale. Wrapped in a Mr. Coffee filter, the phosphorus looks appropriately enough like dark purple coffee grains. Rocky winces at the measurement. He prefers to mix his pseudoephedrine, red phosphorus, and iodine crystals in a 1:1:1 ratio. The small amount of phosphorus will limit tonight’s yield to less than three-quarters of an ounce, he quickly calculates. It’s way less than he hoped for, but there’s nothing to do but continue with the synthesis.

Rocky mixes a small amount of the phosphorus and pseudoephedrine in the flask. He attaches a glass tube, a condenser that is cooled by a salvaged computer fan, to the top of the flask. He drops a few of the iodine crystals in the flask along with several strips of aluminum foil and closes the condenser lid, places the flask over a double-boiler, and the reflux begins. It’s the type of chemical reaction that makes certain kids want to be chemists. A violet nebula bursts to life in the flask, it expands into the condenser, where it cools, turns yellow, and floats back to the bottom of the flask, where it accumulates as a bubbling, purple applesauce-like substance. As soon as the reaction begins to simmer down, Rocky adds more ingredients to keep it going, until finally about a half-inch of dark liquid has accumulated on the bottom of the flask. It looks a lot like Welch’s grape juice.

That’s the meth, but it’s not done yet. Grape juice is a long way from white powder. The liquid is subjected to a filtering process using toluene and acetone to complete the synthesis. Rocky adjusts the pH with the lye crystals, gasses it with the hydrogen, pours from jar to jar, scrapes the residue out of the final filter, dries it out and starts over using knowledge he can’t really verbalize and only a handful of people possess to determine when the batch is nearing completion.

Ed tears open one of those auto air fresheners with the glass tube of liquid deodorizer in it, removes the tube, breaks off one end, dumps out the fluid and rinses out the tube. Then he grabs a handy propane torch and heats the unbroken end of the tube until it’s glowing red. He places the tube to his mouth and blows. A small bulb pops out of the molten red end. Ed pokes a small hole in the bulb, blows on the glass until it’s cooled, hands the brand-spanking new crank pipe to Rocky. Rocky loads the pipe with a sample of what he’s got so far, flicks his Bic, and the fresh meth vaporizes in his lungs. He blows the hit out 15 seconds later.

“Green,” he says, referring to the need for more cooking.

“That’s what you always say,” Ed says.

“Moore, come here, I need your taste buds.”

Moore sidles over and takes a hit off the pipe, holds it, considering the flavor, the effect, in the same way a wine connoisseur might roll the latest hip label around on his or her palate, except of course instead of vino, Moore’s sampling the freshest vintage meth available. He thinks it over, looks considerately at Rocky, then at his watch, blows the hit out.

“Two-point-two more minutes,” he says confidently. “But if you really want to check it out, you should stick some up your ass. That’s the best way. It gets all up in the membranes. I usually have my girlfriend do it, but I’ll help you out if you don’t mind ...”

Rocky grins at the twisted prison humor. He keeps the reflux going a couple of minutes longer, goes through the intricate filtering process one more time, and four-and-a-half hours after the synthesis began, a half-cup mound of white, flaky chunks sits in the bottom of the flask, 21 grams of pure methamphetamine, ready to shoot, snort, smoke, sell, whatever.

“So, this is the part where we kill you,” Moore says to the reporter. It takes a second for the joke to register, and everybody laughs.

The consensus of the trio after a heavy post-lab smoking session is that the speed is good, but it’s by no means Rocky’s best batch. Of course, Rocky’s worst batch is probably better than most of the stuff found on the street, which is almost always heavily stepped on. Once, Rocky broke down 32 grams of Mexican dope in the lab. Turned out to only have seven grams of methamphetamine in it; the remaining 25 grams, 80 percent of the total amount, was all filler or cut. He hands the pipe to Ed, who stokes up another towering hit, then passes the pipe to Moore.

“Man, I love doing good speed,” Moore says. “It doesn’t have the drain of the bad come-down. You can sleep, but you don’t have to be a grizzly bear, and you’re not an asshole.”

That is probably a matter of opinion. The authorities are not running those “turn in your local crank cook” ads on TV (by calling 866-METH-LAB) for nothing. Methamphetamine has destroyed the lives of many people in Northern California; it probably hasn’t made Rocky, Ed and Moore better human beings. They’ll be the first ones to tell you that. They’ll also tell you if they and their friends want to rot their brains out smoking bathtub crank, well, then it oughtta be their right. Why not? It’s their lifestyle. They all talk about quitting, but they’re a long way from it. Rocky and Moore may occasionally say they hate it, but they don’t hate it enough ... yet. So they’ll keep making methamphetamine, they’ll keep getting high.

Rocky, successful clandestine chemist for the moment, cleans up the scene of the crime between tokes. All the containers used in the synthesis, the ghetto glass fruit jars, are scrubbed profusely with distilled water. Some of the chemicals have been reclaimed during the procedure, and can be used again. He burns what little waste material there is -- a small amount of spent solvent, useless chemicals, cardboard packaging, etc. -- feeling it’s safer to dispose of such materials in the atmosphere rather than bury them, where some of the toxins might leech into the watershed.

The battery is the last thing loaded into the truck. The lab door is padlocked. Rocky, Ed and Moore probably won’t use this site again. No sense in pushing their luck. Ed and Moore pile in, Rocky guns the engine, and they head back down the winding mountain road, similar to moonshiners back in the day. But they’ll be carrying an illicit drug that will never be as popular or as ubiquitous as hard liquor, a white powdery substance you never need come down from, once you learn how to make it.

Monkey Business

These days, Gigi?s life is smooth sailing. Retired at 43, she spends most of her days in the sun, resting and watching birds. She enjoys leisure time by her fountain and often hangs out with pals Rosemary, Justin and Lynn. A 20-foot tower gives her a spectacular view of the Texas Hill country. The biggest challenge of the day comes from neighboring longhorn cows that stroll by the fence line.

It?s a breeze, considering Gigi?s first job. In the ?60s she worked for the United States Air Force in the space program, a subject for tests on the effects of space travel. When the Air Force discontinued testing, she and the others bounced from one facility to another for biomedical research. She and 140 others became the first to be used in hepatitis and AIDS research. You?ve probably never heard of Gigi and the gang.

That might be because they?re chimpanzees.

While animal welfare groups decry the horror stories of tests done on animals, the scientific community praises these advances made in the name of human health. According to National Institutes of Health statistics, non-human primates make up 1 percent of all animal research, but it?s an important group for the human fight against diseases like asthma and Alzheimer?s.

In the search for an AIDS vaccine, scientists discovered that the closest non-human strain of HIV is simian immunodeficiency virus. Found only in non-human primates, SIV behaves almost identically to the HIV virus in behavior and development into AIDS. It may be the key to a human vaccine for the virus.

The California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis is one of eight primate research centers nationwide funded by the NIH. It hosts several species of primates, including rhesus macaques, though it no longer handles chimpanzees. The demand for primate research increased dramatically and the Primate Center began plans to expand in late 2001. The plans would allow the university to increase the number of primates kept at the center from 3,800 to 5,000.

Not everyone was thrilled by the change. In January 2002, Animal Protection Institute and In Defense of Animals, two California-based animal welfare groups, sued the university to prevent the expansion.

To get the go-ahead on any project, the university must prove that any significant environmental impacts are unavoidable. It must also show there are no feasible alternatives to the project. The groups claimed that the university did not fully examine the alternatives before dismissing them, and the university itself admitted that a non-primate research alternative was preferable.

Dr. Elliot Katz, president and founder of In Defense of Animals, claimed the goal of the lawsuit was, ?to move the biomedical community away from the harming and killing of animals.?

Katz said there is no justification for the increase in demand for primate research. There are plenty of people with AIDS willing to be volunteers for the testing of medications, making him question the necessity of infecting healthy apes with SIV. The lack of consideration for what happens to primates following their use in research alarmed both the Animal Protection Institute and In Defense of Animals.

?Usually after they do invasive research they kill the monkey and do an autopsy,? said Katz, adding that when a test is over animals in the group are commonly euthanized.

Yet the protests haven?t derailed the scientists? search for answers. The high demand for primate research is due in part to the mapping of the human genome and the serious questions that have resulted from the need to learn how environment, proteins and behaviors affect our genes.

Gigi and the gang are lucky. At the end of their long research road was a retirement facility, where they found a home after the Air Force decided to disperse the group in 1997. More primates from UC Davis will now be heading to similarly happy pastures.

Along with the Coulston Foundation, a research facility that received 110 chimps, the Air Force selected Primarily Primates Inc., a 75-acre primate rehabilitation facility in Texas, for the retirement of the remaining 31 chimps. It is one of the largest primate sanctuaries in the country.

UC Berkeley, University of Tennessee, University of Arizona and the Buckshire Corporation have all retired primates with help from Primarily Primates Inc. president Wally Swett.

?We?re being approached more, rather than having to prove ourselves,? said Swett of the permanent lifetime rehabilitation and retirement his facility has offered since 1978.

Retirement for the primates no longer needed at the UC Davis Primate Center is now guaranteed thanks to the settlement reached in late May between UC Davis and both animal welfare groups. A liaison from the UC Center for Animal Alternatives will be designated to work with the Primate Center on reducing the number of animals used.

The Primate Center agreed to allot $75,000 for the next two years to purchase imaging technology for more non-invasive research practices. It will also encourage the use of imaging technology in the grants given by NIH for primate research and host a yearly meeting for the scientific community on the alternatives to primate research.

As part of the settlement, the Animal Protection Institute and In Defense of Animals are barred from any further protest of the expansion. The next step for Katz and In Defense of Animals is to continue to raise public awareness of the perils faced by research animals, and to encourage the NIH to give more money to non-animal research. It is an area he feels is grossly under-funded.

?I don?t want to use animals in research,? said Dr. Jeff Roberts, the associate director of the Primate Center. ?But if we have to use animals to help understand biological phenomenon, then we?re going to.?

A veterinarian, Roberts walks the same thin line as many animal researchers. He finds himself balancing his love for animals with his drive to study, and the frequent need to euthanize his subjects to gain valuable insights into diseases. What we can learn from how these primates handle everything from viruses to drugs may provide keys to our own health issues and save millions of lives.

Roberts responded strongly to the accusation that UC Davis summarily dismissed the non-primate research alternative.

?It?s characterized that we?re totally rejecting alternative research for use of animals and that?s not the way it?s done,? said Roberts, citing the use of computer models and cell cultures as frequently used alternatives to procedures involving primates.

However, Roberts cautioned, some research cannot skip the animal testing phase. The testing of vaccines in primates before they are given to humans is vital to prevent the risk of infecting healthy humans with the disease.

?Where would we be if Louis Pasteur decided that he wasn?t going to do any work with animals?? asked Roberts.

Pasteur developed the idea of a vaccine by utilizing a weakened strain of a microbe to combat a more powerful strain. He successfully developed vaccines for rabies and anthrax, using animals in his research and vaccine trials. Arguably the most important person in medical history, he pioneered the study of infectious diseases and his technique for vaccine development is still in use today.

It is a delicate dance, risking the lives of our closest genetic relatives to save the lives of millions of humans. Asthma is another area where primate research is proving invaluable. According to statistics from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, over 5 million children in this country have asthma. Besides AIDS, it is the only chronic disease with an increasing death rate. Primates are used to study the causes of asthma and test potential medications for treatment.

Roberts noted the similarities in the development of asthma in primates and children, saying, ?When people look at the changes in human and monkey airways it?s almost impossible to tell the difference. If we can come up with answers to deal with this disorder by using those animal models, I would feel unethical if we didn?t pursue those answers.?

The settlement?s commitment of funds to the purchase of non-invasive imaging equipment is a source of agreement for both sides, said Roberts. ?It [the settlement] addressed the other groups? concerns about reducing animal numbers. If you do it using better science and you can answer the same question, I?m all for it.?

The cost of maintaining lab animals is substantial, and with the demand for primate research many facilities could see those costs skyrocket. The ability to use fewer animals and possibly get more comprehensive and valuable results is one the research community hungers for.

Roberts believes that the use of non-invasive technologies is the start of a trend in both human and animal research. The biomedical engineering department at UC Davis is developing technology that combines CAT scans and MRIs with positron emission tomography, or PET scans. The combination of imaging (CET and MRI) with detailed display of the metabolic and organ functions would allow researchers to study an animal internally both visually and metabolically while it?s still alive.

Using the example of a study on the long-term effects of a drug, Roberts said, ?Rather than taking six animals then treating them all with the drug and then euthanizing one animal at one month and doing a necropsy, the next at two months and so on, if you can evaluate those changes on one animal six times, you reduce your animal number.?

Now that the settlement is complete, Roberts can focus on what drives him to continue primate research.

?I speak a lot at scientific groups about Alzheimer?s disease and you?ll have somebody ask, 'Well, when is that going to be available?? ? he said. ?And you look at them and you start answering the question and they?re crying. This isn?t someone asking some abstract question. Their mother or their father has Alzheimer?s disease and they?re looking at when is something going to be available. And you get this huge knot in your stomach and you?re driven.?

Rashida Smith writes for the Sacramento News & Review

Irradiated Food Fight

Radiation has a pretty bad reputation in the general populace. Just the word brings up thoughts of radioactive waste, weapons of mass destruction, bloated military budgets, and science fiction films where irradiated characters are cast in a sickly green glow.

So when consumers have been asked whether they would buy irradiated food -- food that's been treated with radiation to rid it of bacteria such as E. coli -- they often prefer to take their chances on conventional foods, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that foodborne illnesses cause 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year.

Our inherent mistrust of radiation has made it easy for critics of irradiated food technology to greatly influence public opinion, publishing document after document that dramatizes the potential hazards and downplays the potential benefits. And because their message reinforces our fears of birth defects, cancer, radioactive leaks and unsanitary food processing, we're often quick to side with consumer activists against irradiation.

Public Citizen, a consumer rights organization started by Ralph Nader, has historically been one of the most vocal and active opponents of irradiated foods. One of its most effective arguments centers around the idea that irradiated food is "filthy food."

Inspectors used to use touch, smell and sight to judge the cleanliness of meat in processing plants. Now, a new pilot program is taking inspectors off the floor and allowing for the speeding up of slaughter lines. Irradiation at the end of the process destroys bacteria, regardless of its source. So, Public Citizen says, if fecal matter, vomit, puss or any other contamination gets into the meat, the inspector won't be on the floor to catch it, and irradiation will destroy the bacteria, even while the source of the bacteria remains in the food.

Irradiation advocates find this argument both ludicrous and inflammatory. But their insistence that regulations for sanitation will remain in place isn't as dramatic as the dire picture of the meat industry run amok. Citing the relaxation of inspection standards as evidence that the meat industry can't be trusted, opponents prey upon our fears of corporate irresponsibility.

They also call into question the safety of irradiated foods. In one public education flyer listing the top 10 reasons why irradiated foods are dangerous, Public Citizen claims that the process creates a new class of chemicals, chemicals that have never existed before and whose long-term impacts can't be accurately predicted.

Cyclobutanones are so prevalent in irradiated foods, and remain at such high levels over time, that they were originally considered a marker to tell whether foods had been through the irradiation process. Public Citizen claims that "research dating to the 1950s has revealed a wide range of problems in animals that ate irradiated food, including premature death, a rare form of cancer, stillbirths, genetic damage, organ malfunctions ... " The list goes on.

Seeking to keep their lead over irradiation advocates, Ian Sitton and Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen held a press conference in front of the Davis Food Co-op one morning in late fall. They highlighted a new report called "Hidden Harm" that sought to prove that cyclobutanones were created by the irradiation process and had not been sufficiently studied. Though the report is well written and sufficiently alarming, it focuses its attention primarily on proving that these chemicals exist in irradiated foods, without proving that they cause harm.

But then, that's not the point. The point is to cast enough doubt to hold off the approval of new irradiated foods. Currently, ready-to-eat foods and seafood are under consideration by the FDA.

By raising new doubts over the safety of cyclobutanones, and casting doubt on the validity of the FDA's process, Public Citizen is strengthening an argument that includes a long list of other inflammatory statements that are, to one degree or another, true.

They claim that irradiation destroys vitamins, including up to 80 percent of vitamin A in eggs and 48 percent of beta carotene in orange juice. To back up their claims, they cite FDA memorandums.

Even if these numbers are based on extremely high levels of radiation, they're difficult to combat. Advocates admit that some nutritional value is lost, but in most cases, it's very minor. Eating a balanced diet would correct any deficiencies. Cooking, they remind us, also destroys nutritional value. But because they must admit that some nutritional value is lost during the irradiation of some foods, advocates of the technology have a hard time combating consumer concerns.

Public Citizen also claims that irradiation will lead to the globalization of food production, claiming, "because it increases the shelf life of food and utilizes large, centralized facilities, irradiation encourages globalization and consolidation of the food production, distribution and retailing industries."

And perhaps this gets to the heart of the real arguments against irradiation. Public Citizen is very concerned that by not thinking proactively enough, we will throw away the opportunity to create safer, more sanitary, more humane and more responsible ways of growing, processing and shipping foods.

Its war against irradiation seems to come down to believing in a particular vision of the future, where food is produced without relying on centralized plants that are indifferent to the care of the animal, indifferent to issues of sanitation and indifferent to creating a nutritious, tasty food product. And there's validity to that argument. The popularity of farmer's markets and organic foods proves that some people will always prefer to pay top dollar for the cleanest, best-tasting food.

Irradiation advocates can't understand why the same consumers who will pay for organics wouldn't also pay more for the cleanest cut of meat. The Center for Consumer Research on the University of California at Davis campus continues to fight the uphill battle to educate consumers about the potential benefits of irradiation, believing that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Their most compelling argument is that irradiation could potentially wipe out foodborne illness.

Christine Bruhn, the director of Consumer Research, is a strong advocate for the technology. "Have you ever heard someone speak who's lost a child to E. coli?" Bruhn asks over the phone, her voice pained. Like her opponents, Bruhn resorts to graphic and dramatic examples to make her point.

Seven to 10 days after eating contaminated food, says Bruhn, a child develops extreme stomach pain. Then, the child develops diarrhea and begins to bleed internally. "There's nothing to do for these kids," she says. "The lining of the intestine is eaten by the bacteria. These kids suffer strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure ... I can't deal with that."

Advocates have a retort for each argument put forth by groups like Public Citizen, but so far, they're losing the public relations battle.

Unsanitary conditions? Advocates suggest we look at the dairy industry. Has pasteurization made for unsanitary dairies? Just the opposite, they say. Hazards from spills and unsafe working conditions? Sure Beam, the largest irradiator in the country, uses electricity to irradiate. There is no radioactive waste, no threat of spills and no threat to workers. Cyclobutanones? If they caused damage, proof would have emerged during many decades of testing.

While public opposition to irradiation has begun to weaken, especially among those with immune deficiency disorders, irradiated foods are rarely requested by local consumers, so they're rarely available in the Sacramento area, though no one can point to proof that irradiation causes anywhere near as much damage as foodborne illnesses.

Though critics cast doubt over the safety and nutritional value of irradiated foods, advocates of the technology can be found in every sector of food science. Academics, the FDA, the USDA, the American Dietetic Association, the World Health Organization, the American Public Health Association and others all appear on a list of those who say irradiation is safe. Advocates of irradiation say that it is the most researched food technology in U.S. history, and that it has been found to be perfectly safe through repeated tests here and around the world. The challenge is to get the word out.

Dr. Dean Cliver, professor of food safety at Davis, has been an active advocate of irradiated foods since the 1970s, and he's furious at groups who seek to keep them out of the marketplace. He blames Public Citizen for denying consumers the right to choose by raising fears over issues like cyclobutanones, even though the FDA has known about them for years and never been presented with sufficient evidence that they were dangerous. Like other advocates, he claims that Public Citizen is basically alone in its opposition to irradiation, though most local retailers also reject irradiated foods, consistently waiting until their customers demand them.

As Carolyn Konrad of Raley's said, "If there's no public demand, we won't carry it."

But smear campaigns by consumer groups are only one of the hurdles advocates must clear. Consumers are also alarmed by labeling that puts the emphasis on "radiation," which is likely to repulse consumers who've never even heard of Public Citizen.

Labeling laws insist that when foods have been irradiated, they must carry the radura, the international irradiation symbol, along with a phrase like, "treated with radiation." Advocates believe that these labels have held down the demand for irradiated foods, even though irradiated beef, poultry, pork, eggs, fruits, vegetables and spices have all been approved for sale by the FDA in recent years. Advocates are now resorting to phrases like "cold pasteurization," even though such terms have been deemed "sneaky" and "deceptive" by focus groups around the country, including those held last summer in Sacramento.

While Public Citizen may be winning the public debate against irradiation, Bruhn has recently received funding for an education program that will seek to give consumers the advocate's version of the truth. The Center for Consumer Research will seek to prove that once people understand the benefits of living without the threat of foodborne illness, irradiated food will become the public's choice -- a choice they're willing to pay extra for.

A retailer will be chosen in California as a test market for irradiated foods. At the same time, Bruhn's team will show videos, distribute brochures and otherwise create a squeaky clean image of irradiation to combat the apocalyptic version put forth by Public Citizen.

On both sides, the information will be attractively packaged and the message very carefully prepared.

Will we swallow it?

Illusion of Security

In the middle of the central city, there's a house with a "Beware of Dog" sign posted by the entrance on the gate. This sign is what security experts call creating an "illusion of security."

It's a poor man's security system, but it's better than having nothing at all. They say that if you were a burglar and had to choose between breaking into a house with such a sign and one without, chances are you'd choose the one without.

But how much do you want to rely on this illusion for security? If you were a homeowner with a little bit more to protect, chances are you'd probably want more than just a sign to keep burglars out. You'd probably want a real dog, or an alarm system, or a gun.

Since September 11, there's been a lot of talk about security, particularly the holes in it. Some critics believe that the breach of security that happened on 9-11 shows how our nation has been operating under a "beware of dog" security system.

And while there have been some security measures put in place that actually have teeth, much of our response has been akin to just posting more "beware of dog" signs: visual deterrents that seem to do little to actually foil bad guys.

Signs or dogs? There are now troops at the airports and guards outside many government buildings. They join a rapidly expanding army of security guards who are watching over more and more of our public places. Watching, and serving as a sign of vigilance against evildoers.

But are they making us safer? Or are they just cosmetic enhancements to make us feel safer?

The concerns and challenges faced today by the Federal Aviation Administration -- which is trying to beef up and professionalize baggage screeners and other security positions -- are the same ones shared by the private security industry.

It took 9-11 to raise the stature of airport screeners. Before that, they were merely an invisible link in the security hierarchy, nothing more than minimum-wage earners on an assembly line -- much like your average unarmed security guard.

"I tried several years ago to raise issues about airport security," said Al Howenstein, legislative representative of the California Association of Licensed Security Agencies, Guards and Associates (CALSAGA). "You talk about the weakest link -- in any operation it's usually at the lowest level."

The airline industry did the same thing that many businesses do with regards to security, Howenstein pointed out: they went for the lowest bid. They chose the cheapest possible options from security companies that will offer them the cheapest rate, spending the least amount of money on those individuals performing menial security functions.

Therefore, they got what they paid for: a sign instead of the dog.

Security Guards

People in the security business tend to scoff at the familiar cliché of the sleeping security guard. They won't deny that this public perception exists, but they'll also point out how many cops they know who snooze on the job. And a soundly sleeping dog might as well be a "beware of dog" sign.

Yet even when the dog is on the job, is he effective? There's no denying that low pay and often boring working conditions create the high turnover rate in the business, or the fact that many people who work guard jobs have other jobs. With what most are paid, they have to have another job.

Like the baggage screener, the typical unarmed guard is often paid minimum wage to perform a level of service that is considered the first line of defense for many corporate assets. There are virtually no specific qualifications for this line of work. According to the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS), the regulatory agency within the Department of Consumer Affairs that monitors the private security industry, the only real qualifications are: be 18 years old and have a clean criminal record.

This doesn't mean that you can't work as a security guard if you have a spotty record. The agency admits that the criminal background check can take the Department of Justice and FBI six months or longer to complete. Who's going to wait that long on the unemployment line for their registration to come through?

Yet they don't really have to wait, because the applicant can actually start working with a temporary guard card, which is good for four months. So often the guards are working without proper registration, or worse yet, with criminal records.

For years, many in the industry have recognized the need for better enforcement of standards and regulations with regards to unscrupulous private security operators who take advantage of such holes in the system by providing illegal, unlicensed and often under-insured services at below market prices.

"They're irresponsible," said L. Earle Graham, president of CALSAGA. "They're putting people out there that are employed by them without the proper background check. They look to the short term to make a quick buck. And if they get caught, they just go out of business."

This means that often consumers think they're buying a dog, but in fact, all they're getting is a sign. So it comes back to: you get what you pay for. And presented with a choice between well-trained, experienced guards or a cheaper, less experienced option, those who run security companies say most businesses choose the latter.

"That's all a matter of money," said Kenneth Garrett, president of All-Phase Security Inc. "You can put all kinds of well-trained people out there, but you've got to be able to pay them a decent salary. It's going to be incumbent upon our industry to facilitate these changes."

Airport Troops

The government's current method for showing how we've beefed up our security is by displaying more security. But is more security necessarily better security? That is, are 20 "beware of dog" signs better than one?

The presence of the National Guard is hard to miss at our airports. Such safety enhancements have been in place since the start of October, but around every corner, from one news story to the next, we still hear of threats and breaches of security. Exactly what is the role of the National Guard?

"They are in a support role to provide military support to civil authority," explained Lieutenant Colonel Terry Knight of the National Guard.

But what exactly do they do?

"They're monitoring," said Knight. "They're watching to make sure the screeners are doing what they're supposed to be doing. And they're there to support law enforcement if it's needed."

So basically, they're security guards in military uniforms?

"They look like they're just a visual presence, but they're not just standing around," Knight insisted. "They are watching, they are monitoring, and they've gotten special training from the FAA. Believe me, they're not just a prop. They are actually functional and have assigned duties."

These are essentially the same job descriptions of an unarmed security guard, according to the BSIS manual: to observe and report. What exactly are the National Guardsmen looking for?

"They know what to look for," Knight responded. "They know what sets off a red light. They're definitely supporting and following the lead of the airport authority, law enforcement and the security folks."

According to Knight, the National Guard is scheduled to do more monitoring up until March, at which time the Federal Marshals will step in and take over permanently.

"Yes, there'll be more people," Knight noted, "but it's going to make things safer. It's going to cause everybody to cover their bases a little bit better."

Whether they actually make airports and institutions more secure, demand for security guards is on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of security officers is expected to increase 21 to 35 percent through 2010, outpacing most other professions.

"We have seen a rise in the number of applications for guards, and we believe that it's a result of September 11," said Kevin Flanagan, spokesman for BSIS.

Kenneth Garrett believes that the rise in guard applications has to do with people reviewing some of their security needs after 9-11. He hopes that we will see some long-term changes in the future.

"And [these changes] should come about in an intelligently planned-out method rather than being just reactionary to the whole terrorism thing," he said. "The industry needs to rise above where it is today. It's the same thing with the airport screeners. They are all low paid or ill trained with minimal supervision. That needs to be changed industrywide."

Exactly what changes are in store for the public and private sector security industries will determine whether the guard at his post is a sign, a dog or a dog with teeth.

Ching Lee writes for the Sacramento News and Review, where a version of this article originally appeared.

Reefer Madness

Late in the afternoon of Friday September 28, 2001, just as 11-year-old Caroline Schafer was arriving home with her brother, Cody, and her father, she noticed to her surprise a line of dark, late-model SUVs and pickups completely filling the long driveway leading up to her hillside El Dorado County home.

"My first thought," Caroline said, "was that my mother had invited some friends from her church group over for a visit."

She asked her father, Dale Schafer, who was driving, what was going on.

Schafer didn't know, so he pulled over to the side of the road and stopped.

Caroline and Cody slipped out the passenger door and began to make their way up toward the house. They hadn't gone but a few yards when two men clad in dark windbreakers suddenly jumped out onto the roadway. The men squared off and assumed a firing stance. Cody caught a glimpse of something in their hands.

"All I saw was a flash of black," said the 8-year-old Cody. "It was pretty dark, and I couldn't tell what it was."

The children heard a man shout, "Freeze!"

A long moment passed. Then, from the gloom at the side of the road, a voice said, "Lower your weapons. It's just kids."

The men straightened and relaxed. As they did, Caroline could see, emblazoned in large yellow letters on their black mesh jackets the letters: "DEA."

To her this meant nothing.

It was not until she found herself sequestered with her brother -- and her stunned and shaken mother -- and saw for the first time the butt end of a Glock semi-automatic pistol on an agent's hip, that she determined the "flash of black" her brother had seen was a gun, and that it had been pointed directly at both her and her brother.

"That's when I realized it wasn't a church group," she said, "and I started to get really scared."

She had reason to be.

Attorney Dale Schafer and his wife, Marion (Mollie) Fry, M.D., live in a rambling house outside the tiny foothill town of Greenwood, California. It's pretty far off the beaten track, and traffic is virtually nonexistent. So when the official-looking vehicles pulled into Fry's driveway that afternoon, she went out to meet them.

"They threw me down on the ground, on my face," Fry recalls. "They had a search warrant. They handcuffed me and then they left me laying in the dirt for 20 minutes while they secured the house."

The DEA agents turned the house upside down. They pulled everything out of the closets. They went through all the kitchen cabinets. They took all the computers from the children's room.

The federal officers were looking for marijuana. Outside, they found six mature plants in a greenhouse, and one more growing on the hillside. They also found 27 immature plants -- none more than a foot or so in height -- and about 20 pounds of what they called "processed marijuana." The agents were also looking for cash. They found $1800 in an envelope, but since that was also filled with receipts for little league dues and the like, they left it alone.

But mostly what they were looking for were records -- all the records, in fact, of the small business that bore the innocuous title of "The California Medical Research Center," or the CMRC. At the same time the DEA agents were searching the house, others were going through the CMRC offices, eight miles down the road in Cool.

The CMRC had been open since August 1999. Fry and Schafer -- advertising themselves as an "Attorney-Physician Team" -- had specialized in evaluating patients for the use of cannabis under California's Proposition 215, "The Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act." In the two years since the CMRC opened, they had built up a practice of over 6000 patients.

This activity was supposedly permitted under the Act.

Although the possession, cultivation and use of marijuana remained illegal in California, Proposition 215 had created an "exception" to the law. Under the Act, any "seriously ill" Californian would be able "to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes," as long as a licensed physician had determined it would be beneficial to their health.

Neither the patient nor the patient's primary caregiver would be subject to criminal prosecution as long as the amounts of pot were consistent with "reasonable personal use." The physician wouldn't be prosecuted for recommending it.

"I thought the law was real," says Fry.

The federal government, however, doesn't believe in exceptions.

In their view, marijuana was just "green dope" -- different from "white dope" (drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine) only in color. Although penalties varied from substance to substance, they all remained illegal under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

The government had a recent Supreme Court decision to back up its position.

In May 2001, the Court had ruled in Oakland Cannabis Buyer's Cooperative v. United States that nothing like a "medical necessity defense" would be allowed in federal court. Anyone accused of the possession, cultivation or use of marijuana could not raise the Act as a defense. This would presumably include any physician who had recommended the drug.

According to Anne Pings, the assistant U.S. prosecutor who was assigned to the case, the CMRC was therefore nothing more than "a criminal enterprise, permeated with fraud." The Search Affidavit cited a number of violations: Not only was the CMRC "selling certificates," Schafer himself was "selling marijuana hand-to-hand," and was even soliciting his clients to buy cannabis-growing kits. With this as a basis, the U.S. District Court issued the warrant.

By the time the DEA agents left the home, they had carried off all Schafer's marijuana and 6000 medical and legal records of the CMRC. They left the couple's home and offices in such disarray that it took hours to clean up.

Neither Schafer nor Fry were arrested for drug violations, but their legal problems were just beginning.

The inspiration to open the CMRC came by fate and circumstance.

"I was diagnosed with cancer," Fry explains.

A trim, attractive woman in her mid-40s, Fry's spare features and regular frame recall her New England roots. But there is something disconcerting about her, something not immediately evident at first glance.

Mollie Fry has no breasts.

Fry's chest is a featureless plain. Disdaining to wear any sort of prosthesis, she is perfectly comfortable in T-shirts and tank-tops. Fry is a cancer survivor, and she does not bother to hide it.

In late 1997, she entered the hospital for what she thought was routine breast reduction surgery. Halfway through the procedure her doctor walked out of the operating room and grimly told her waiting husband that his wife had breast cancer.

Fry began a regimen of heavy chemotherapy. She endured the pain, the nausea, the loss of hair -- but she lived.

To ease the effects of the chemotherapy, her doctor gave her Marinol, an anti-nausea drug that uses THC -- the active ingredient in marijuana -- as its base. It was too slow.

"When you're violently ill, you can't wait an hour for a medication to metabolize. You want relief now," she says. She tried smoking marijuana, and it worked.

She asked her physician, Dr. Steven Quadro, to write her a note. He was reluctant to put anything in writing, but he did give her verbal approval. With this, she and her husband visited a cannabis club in the Bay Area.

The club would sell it to her, but they were charging high prices -- $50 or more for 1/8 oz. -- and they'd only sell her 3/8 oz. at a time. She was using up to 2 oz. per month, and it was a five-hour drive there and back. To supply his wife, Schafer (who uses pot only sparingly) ended up drifting toward the black market.

"When your wife is lying naked, weeping in a pool of vomit on your shower floor, you don't ask questions. You just go get it." It was a stopgap solution at best.

"When I finally found myself sitting in a parking lot one night, waiting for some guy to show up, I said, 'Hey, there has to be a better way.' "

Schafer doesn’t look much like a drug dealer. Well over 6 feet tall, with a neatly trimmed beard and gold-rimmed glasses, he looks more like a slightly rumpled history professor. His manner is scholarly, bookish even -- but he is by no means averse to the occasional wry observation.

Schafer already knew the local police officers and deputies from his trial work. He knew doctors too, since he had occasionally defended them in court. The Compassionate Use Act had already been in existence for two years, so one night he and his wife sat down at the dinner table and came up with the idea for the CMRC.

Their concept was simple: Schafer would screen patients for eligibility, and his wife would verify them. If they passed, the patient would be given a note. The note would supposedly protect them from prosecution.

There were obstacles. For one thing, Schafer wasn't sure how to go about it. California said medical marijuana was legal, the federal government said it wasn't. Schafer needed guidance.

He started with Bill Lockyer, the state attorney general. At the time, Lockyer was trying to bring some order to the chaos Proposition 215 had created. Although the aims of the Act were clear, its language was not. Most problematic was that nowhere did it explain how much marijuana was consistent with "reasonable personal use." The task of deciding that was falling to the local district attorneys, and they in turn were looking to Lockyer for direction.

Lockyer suggested that Schafer work with his associate, Special Assistant Attorney General Dave DeAlba. With DeAlba in tow, Schafer met with David Thornton, the chief enforcement officer of the State Medical Board.

Thornton was in the same quandary as Lockyer. Not a doctor himself, he was trying to determine what quantities constituted "good practice," and what ailments should or should not be considered "legitimate medical purpose." The Act was vague, and there was little available literature. Thornton says he thought Schafer was sincere, but he could offer only minimal guidance.

Schafer also talked to doctors. Dr. Tod Mikurea, a Berkeley physician, had been recommending cannabis to his patients since 1991. Mikurea availed Schafer of his experience, and showed him a certificate he was using. When Schafer opened the CMRC, he modeled his certificate after Mikurea's.

Schafer also looked at case law. He discovered six instances where defendants had used the Act to justify their activities. It was a narrow sampling, but it showed that the law was still being defined. Meanwhile, he built a greenhouse and started growing pot for his wife.

In the late summer of 1999, the CMRC opened its doors. Schafer already maintained a law office in Cool, so the couple didn't need a new location. They ran an ad in the Gold Panner newspaper, put up a site on the Internet, and waited for patients to show up. Pretty soon, they did.

It also didn't take long for the police to get wind of their activities.

One day, Fry spotted what she took to be a sheriff's deputy prowling around her home, snapping pictures. She immediately called the department and told them, "Don't waste another dime investigating us. If you want to know what we are doing, come out and talk about it."

The department sent out Detective Tim McNulty, from the Western El Dorado County Narcotics Eradication Team, or WENET. Schafer explained about his wife, and McNulty said he'd have to check with his boss -- El Dorado County District Attorney Gary Lacy -- to see if Schafer was legal. Soon after, McNulty told Schafer that Lacy thought he was "in compliance." By the time of the DEA raid two years later, McNulty had witnessed Schafer both plant and harvest two full crops of marijuana plants.

Meanwhile, Fry was seeing patients.

The offices of the CMRC don't look much different than any other medical office. A young woman sits behind a reception desk, answering the telephone. There are some toys on the floor for children to play with, pictures of sailboats on the walls, a stack of National Geographic magazines to read while you wait.

One patient -- who asked to remain nameless -- describes her visit to the CMRC: To begin with, she had to have medical records. Without those, she couldn't come in. Since she had undergone 10 years of treatment for a back injury, she was given an appointment. Upon arrival, she met with Heather Fry, Schafer's 25-year-old daughter, who was working as Schafer's legal assistant. Heather told the patient that since she was engaging in a "legal consultation," all her records and conversations would be protected by "the attorney-client privilege." After viewing a 40-minute video where Schafer explained the law, she was sent in to see Fry.

Fry spent an hour with her. The doctor questioned her about her ailment, and conducted a standard neurological exam. She reviewed the medications the patient had been taking -- a witches' brew of Vicodin, Atavan, Flexoril and Wellbutrin -- and suggested how cannabis might reduce her reliance on these drugs. The patient was charged $200 for the consultation. Since she was indigent, Fry halved it to $100.

"My primary concern is always the overall health of my patient," says Fry, "and the biggest risk to that is often incarceration."

Schafer admits he sold marijuana -- but never at the office.

Prior to the Supreme Court decision in May, 60 or so of their patients had designated Schafer as their "primary caregiver" under the Act. Schafer had hired a man to work in his greenhouse, and he had planted enough to supply these patients.

Those who were poor were supplied for free, according to Schafer. The rest were charged $80 per ounce -- one-fifth the club price -- to cover growing expenses. After the Supreme Court decision, he stopped this, he says.

He laughs at the accusations that he sold growing kits.

"Of course we did," he says. "The whole idea was to get our patients away from the black market, and away from the police."

In the last two years, he says he sold about 15 kits. He had hired a disabled veteran to build a plywood contraption that came complete with fan, timer, hydroponic wick system and a 430-watt grow light. He sold this for $450.

Fry chuckles. "We were selling them the cow, not the milk."

As soon as the story of the raid hit the news media, the telephone at the CMRC started ringing off the hook. Mostly it was patients, and they were worried. Why did the government want their files? Why weren't Fry and Schafer arrested? Most of all, they wanted to know how much danger they were in.

"I was shocked when I heard the news," said one patient who didn't want to be identified. "I was afraid I was going to jail."

She explained that since she was disabled, part of her housing was paid for with HUD funds. She could be evicted if she were discovered using "illegal drugs." She feared she might become homeless, or worse.

Schafer didn't know what to tell his callers. And he was worried about the information in the medical files.

Fry had been conducting a research study to find out who was using medical marijuana, and why. Her study was based on 32 points, ranging from simple demographics (age, sex, abode, employment, etc.) to what she calls "psycho-social indices" (family relationships, marital status, history of substance abuse if any, etc.).

She had wanted to publish the results, and had even entertained the idea that one day the Journal of the American Medical Association might pick it up. After all, she had a degree in biochemistry, and had taken her medical training at UC Irvine. She had examined over 6000 patients, more than enough to be statistically significant. She hoped to shed some light on a world that for years had been shrouded in shadow.

In her published study, of course, no names of her patients would be revealed.

"I guess I was incredibly naive," she says.

Schafer, on the other hand, knew that if the government got their hands on the patient files, they would have a virtual roadmap to the personal habits, history and usage patterns of each and every patient they had seen. Not to mention their names.

Schafer owed it to his patients to fight for their privacy. He hired a veteran lawyer out of San Francisco named J. David Nick. "Nick is smart, he's tough enough to keep chewing away -- and he's done it before," says Schafer. "That's why I chose him."

As soon as Nick got the case, he filed a motion to have all the records returned.

In late October, the litigants and their lawyers met before U.S. Magistrate Gregory G. Hollows in the United States Courtroom in downtown Sacramento.

In his written arguments, Nick had claimed that the files were protected by the attorney-client privilege. Anne Pings countered that since Schafer had rendered his advice "in contemplation or in furtherance of a crime," the attorney-client privilege should not apply. The CMRC was just a "criminal drug enterprise," argued Pings, set up for no other reason than to allow people to buy marijuana. She called Schafer's activities "an affront to the practice of law itself."

Before the hearing, Fry felt confident. She had brought her children to the courthouse, and before the proceedings began, they had played around a ring of marble chairs that plumb the center of the rotunda. They'd looked at the Scales of Justice, and Fry had explained their significance.

"I thought we were on a Justice field trip," she says. "I couldn't believe that the United States would ever permit the files to be opened. I thought the Constitution would protect us."

Schafer was more realistic.

"I was pretty sure the government was going to allow some intrusion into the files. I just didn't know how much," he says.

The hearing got underway and after batting a few questions back and forth between the litigants, Hollows got to the point: Who was the target of the government investigations: Schafer and Fry, or their patients?

Pings was forced to admit it was Schafer and Fry.

Then why did the government need all the files? Since virtually everything Schafer and Fry were doing was illegal under federal law, wouldn't the information in one or two files suffice to prove that?

Pings didn't have an answer and in less than an hour, Hollows ended the hearing.

Afterward, Fry was subdued. In court, Nick had argued that since Proposition 215 was "the will of the people," the federal government had had no right to intervene. He had even been so bold as to suggest the federal law might be wrong.

But Hollows had responded by asking, "If the people of California say heroin is a good thing, does that make it right?"

When Fry had heard that, her sanguinity had disappeared.

"I could see our arguments were falling on deaf ears," she says. " 'Oh, my God,' I thought to myself. 'What is happening to our country?' "

Two days later, in a closely reasoned 28-page finding, Hollows denied Nick's motion.

Hollows did not grant the government unimpeded access, however. The records were to be handed over to a "Special Master" -- an independent attorney agreeable to both parties -- who would release only "relevant information." To some extent at least, the records had been protected.

Hollows had not remained entirely immune to Nick's entreaties. In answer to Nick's contention that the law might be wrong, Hollows had written: "Advocacy directed at the asserted lack of wisdom in the law is to be directed at its makers." In other words, if you don't like the law, change it.

The sense they had won a partial victory didn't last long. A week later -- out of public view -- Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. reversed Magistrate Hollows' decision. Burrell ruled that all the files -- including all the computer information -- were to be immediately released to the DEA.

The records were to be given to a "taint team" -- a group of lawyers who were to have "no future role" in the investigation, according to DEA spokesman Richard Meyers. This team would survey the files to "protect privileged information."

Asked what would happen if the team were to find that any of the patients themselves had engaged in any marijuana violations, Meyers responded, "These activities still remain illegal under federal law."

Nick immediately appealed the ruling, but the effect on the CMRC was devastating. The phone stopped ringing, people stopped coming by, and when anyone did call, it was a usually a patient seeking reassurance. Before the DEA raid, the CMRC had been evaluating about 10 new patients per day. Now it dropped to one or two.

The year before, Schafer and Fry had earned a little less than $68,000 between them. They had taken out a second mortgage to keep the CMRC up and running. All of a sudden they were having money worries.

They reduced staff hours, but with their name all over the news media and the threat of federal indictment hanging over their heads, it was hard to promise patients anything.

Recently, as Schafer sat in his easy chair watching a football game, he talked about the future. His wife was cooking dinner upstairs while Caroline pirouetted around the kitchen. Cody was pitching fastballs into the laundry basket.

Schafer has no idea whether he and his wife will be arrested. Pings has told them that if they are, they will be allowed to surrender rather than being taken off in handcuffs. He is thankful for that, but he worries about his wife.

"If Mollie were put in prison, I think it would break her heart," he says. He can't even begin to think about how the children might react.

Even though the CMRC continues to evaluate patients, Schafer fears it's just a matter of time before that stops. He knows that up in Oregon the federal government is moving against physicians who assist terminally ill people, and has heard about the recent federal raid at the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Center, which had enjoyed strong support from the Los Angeles authorities. He sees the federal handwriting on the wall.

Schafer paused for a moment before continuing:

"You know, the saddest thing about this, is that when Californians passed Proposition 215, they were trying to protect the rights of the sick and the dying. And now, the very law that was meant to protect them -- is being used to persecute them."

How the Taliban Stole Christmas

Christmas is always a busy time of year up here in the North Pole, but this year the pressure is just incredible. I haven't felt this kind of stress since the Cabbage Patch Doll crisis, and I'm just counting the days until my usual post-holiday vacation in Cabo San Lucas. But before I can taste the tequila y camarones, I have a patriotic duty to do.

Rather than "toys and joy and holiday cheer," this year's theme is "consume, consume, consume." It doesn't quite have the same ring, but these are desperate times. The war is raging and the economy is in a nosedive, so churning out big bags of expensive toys and valuable gems has become a national imperative.

At least that's what my bosses in Washington D.C. tell me.

Well, they're not my bosses, really. Santa is his own boss and has been for hundreds of years. But over the last 50 years or so, I've become increasingly dependant on the United States to run my ever-expanding operations. And they've lately been encouraging me to pump up the volume.

My close relationship with the U.S. government began at the dawn of the Cold War. I'd been receiving a few million dollars in foreign aid annually for years, but when capitalism and communism really began to lock horns, I started to get increasingly lucrative offers from each side, and I found myself at the center of a rather nasty geopolitical struggle (albeit entirely in the realm of covert operations, lest I hurt my public image).

Now, I've always tried to remain neutral in political matters. It's just part of my elfin heritage. But the Americans were going to allow me to really expand my enterprise and bring bigger and better toys to the little boys and girls of the world. And all the Soviets really had to offer was free vodka for all the elves, and they've always preferred beer to the hard stuff. My choice was clear.

In exchange for allowing the Americans to build a military base and research facility on my property (I was told it was for my own security), they poured billions of dollars into our operations. We completely renovated the factory, built luxury condominiums for the elves, increased pay and benefits, upgraded the sleigh fleet and added hundreds of new flying reindeer, and computerized the entire system. And I'm not even going to tell you about the fat mansion I got out of the deal.

But the most profound change came from the close relationship that we were able to develop with American corporations, a relationship encouraged by subsidies and tax incentives. We began to outsource with toy companies, jewelers, auto dealers, apparel manufacturers, you name it.

Gradually, such goods began to dominate our product line, and our operations in the North Pole shifted more from production to distribution and marketing. Which was fine with me because the demands of a growing world population were already starting to overwhelm us. Besides, how were we going to keep up with the rapid changes in consumer tastes that would lie ahead?

So everything was going great, and we had a record-setting year in 2000. But then the economy in the U.S. and elsewhere began to soften, and as I don't need to tell you, nothing is the same after September 11. Yes, things have changed.

President Bush called me on the evening of September 11. He sounded tired but resolute, and he told me that he'd need my help in the coming months. I felt just awful about what had happened that morning -- so tragic, so wasteful -- and I pledged my support.

"We need to make this the biggest and best Christmas ever," he said. "The American people are counting on you to really spread the Christmas spirit and get those cash registers jingling. We need your help in the war against these evildoers."

Gosh, what could I say? I mean, I was just overwhelmed with the enormity of the task, with trying to create joy when there was such misery, and persuading people to spend their money freely in this climate of such uncertainty. But I was determined to rise to the task.

The first step was a major marketing campaign, a consumer blitz like the world had never seen. We need to make spending money seem like people's patriotic duty, to get people to see their increasing credit card debt as the price they're paying to fight the terrorists.

So I doubled the number of contract Santas that you'll see on the street this year, and will next week launch an ad campaign in the major media, both of which will focus on some themes and ideas that I think will accomplish the president's goals and objectives.

We'll be aggressively attacking outdated notions of thrift and simplicity as tantamount to high treason, and trying to replace them with sentiments that will encourage consumer spending. So, "It's the thought that counts" will be replaced by "It's the cost that counts," and we'll be attaching price tags with super glue just to reinforce that idea.

Rather than bargain shopping, we'll encourage people to spend as much as possible for gifts, and we're going to borrow on some modern consumer trends to do it. I'm just now putting the finishing touches on a special Holiday Telethon, to be broadcast live from Kabul on December 18.

Jerry Lewis will host and we've partnered with E-Bay to allow viewers to bid on an array of gifts that will scroll along the bottom of the screen. We'll have guests like President Bush, Colin Powell, Martin Sheen and Rush Limbaugh encouraging bidders to drive the prices up higher and higher to prove their loyalty to the country. Proceeds will benefit the Homeland Security Trust Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to raising revenues, I'm also trying to hold costs down this season. It didn't get much publicity for national security reasons, but the USA PATRIOT Act recently approved by Congress included a "Santa Clause" that allows me to increase the elves' work hours without paying overtime and to roll my reindeer chow costs over into the next fiscal year.

Volunteerism is a popular notion over the holidays, as everyone wants to do their part to make the world a better place. But too often, people volunteer in soup kitchens or women's shelters or similar nonproductive ventures. So we're creating volunteer opportunities in retail, where it will really help.

We're also trying to get creative in turning recycled items into new products that we can sell at a premium price. For example, I have people in Afghanistan right now collecting used burkas from the women and we're going to turn them into the biggest holiday dress craze that this country has ever seen. Cindy Crawford has even agreed to be our spokesmodel.

All this is just a sampling of the comprehensive agenda we have planned. So you see, we're working hard up here in the North Pole to do our part to preserve the American way of life. And the rest is up to you.

Prisoner of Conscience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fast was over, but the protests were not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narcissus Smokes

I remember my last cigarette like it was yesterday.

That's because it was yesterday.

A scrunched-up Marlboro Light with lipstick traces on the filter tip. I filched it out of an ashtray outside the supermarket. I thanked its former owner for being so generous, straightened its bent form, and sparked it up on the drive home.

The smoke tasted used and dirty going down. The rush hit after the third drag.

A tingling sensation welled up inside my head, spread down my neck and shoulders and into my fingertips and the base of my spine, then exploded in my consciousness as an intense feeling of omniscience and well-being.

I was sharp. I was on the ball. I had all the answers.

The comedown was instantaneous. Poof! Gone. If nicotine's buzz lasted a split-second longer it'd be illegal, I thought, backsliding into a more mundane realm where I clearly didn't have all the answers.

For example:

I am in the peak physical condition of my life. I pump iron, do cardio, eat six tiny meals a day, take vitamins and drink only filtered or bottled water. To top it off, I'm on the nicotine patch.

Yet, I'd just plucked a crusty cigarette butt out of a public ashtray and smoked it. What's up with that?

How can a man simultaneously pursue physical fitness and lung cancer? What causes our hero to seek both life and death at the same time?

Narcissism seems as reasonable an explanation as any. Let us recall the myth.

A handsome young man meets the passionate offers of local maidens and nymphs with studied indifference -- Narcissus only has eyes for himself. This hubris angers Nemesis, the goddess charged with curing all excess, and she places a curse on Narcissus. When he sees his reflection in a pond, he falls hopelessly in love with it. He remains rooted to the spot, where he withers away. The flower that will one day bare his name springs up next to the pond.

Cut to the present.

An older, not-quite-as-handsome man gazes at his reflection in the mirror. He has the body of a teenager, rippled and sinewy. But the face doesn't quite match. The intelligence burning behind the eyes belongs to a deviant who can spot the little camel on a filter tip from across a crowded parking lot, a sneak thief who approaches supermarket ashtrays with the stealth and cunning of a sleight-of-hand artist, a martyr who will risk untold public humiliation in the name of his cause.

In the mirror, I see the body of Adonis and the sick grin of a butt-stalker.

Strangely, I am in love with both of them.

I started working out five years ago, and quitting smoking seemed like a no-brainer at the time. The health hazards are, of course, well known. Besides the aforementioned lung cancer, there's cancer of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, bladder and pancreas to worry about, according to the American Cancer Society.

Not to mention emphysema, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease and impotence. Lungs, mind, heart, sex. Take your pick.

There are just as many ways to quit as there are reasons to do it, and I've tried most of them. I've done nicotine patches until my skin peeled off. Chewed nicotine gum until my gums were shriveled and raw. I've spent a bundle on hypnotism, acupuncture, and meditation. I was on gum the first half of this year; I've been on the patch since September. I am supposed to go off the patch cold turkey by Dec. 31 and I am scared stiff.

I've never made it cold turkey all the way through. I made it three months without cigarettes on one occasion; six months on another. But always I return to feed the monster.

I first met it more than a dozen years ago. My fiancée at the time suggested we go cold turkey a month before our wedding date. On the twenty-third day, she stabbed me in the calf with the pointed end of an incense burner. I grabbed a sizzling hot barbecued chicken breast from out of the broiler with my bare hand, squeezed it until the juice began to flow, and shook it at her, screaming, "THIS IS YOU!!!!!!!"

We bought a pack of cigarettes and called off the marriage. In that order.

It was by no means my last meeting with the monster. One part physical agitation, one part anxiety, one part transient visual, tactile or auditory hallucination -- the monster is the three harshest symptoms of nicotine withdrawal rolled into one. When you go cold turkey, it doesn't necessarily manifest itself as the need for a cigarette.

You feel empty, so you eat. You feel nervous, so you fidget. Somebody pisses you off, so you stab them.

Researchers will eventually find a positive correlation between going cold turkey and homicide. The monster did it. I have lost jobs, lovers and roommates to it. I've learned to keep it at bay at all cost.

That's why I've never made it cold turkey all the way through. Sooner or later, the monster emerges. It will eat you and the others around you.

Either you make a stand or you feed it. I have so far always chosen to feed it.

My meeting with the monster was not inevitable. I was born in 1960, at the dawn of the anti-smoking era, and was presented with a clear choice in the matter by the age of seven.

There was the toy plastic cigarette I got out of a ten-cent gumball machine. It glowed red when I puffed on it, just like dad's real cigarette.

There was the anti-smoking TV commercial with the boy about my age playing with a pack of his father's cigarettes. His father was dying from lung cancer, and the boy would surely die, too, if he started smoking. Like father, like son.

That commercial scared the hell out of me, causing me to be rabidly anti-smoking throughout most of my youth. I mercilessly hounded my father to quit smoking right up until the day I broke up with my high-school sweetheart. I smoked my first cigarette, a Marlboro Light, in the parking lot the next morning before school.

It glowed red, just like dad's. Suddenly the breakup didn't hurt anymore. I knew all the answers.

It was the late 1970s, and smoking was cool. Forget about Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man and subliminal advertising. Think Keith Richards, cigarette perpetually dangling from lower lip. Tobacco advertising had been banned from TV, but there was no shortage of celebrity roll models to chose from. Skinny, glamorous, chain-smoking musicians, movie stars and fashion models reinforced my fledgling habit, and continue to do so for others today. According to the American Cancer Society, drinking and smoking are depicted in a positive manner in 97 percent of top movie rentals, and 27 percent of the most popular songs.

Art imitates life. I fell in love with the reflection. I couldn't turn away.

By the late 1980s, I was a solid pack-a-day smoker. Dad made it to three packs a day before the doctors cracked him open like a freshly steamed crab just shy of his fiftieth birthday. A pacemaker and a quadruple bypass later, he was literally a new man. He hasn't smoked since -- more than a dozen years without a cigarette.

If only I could say the same. But alas! I could not face the monster alone. As it so happened, though, help was on the way and for sale.

During the 1990s, a growing array of products designed to help the smoker defeat the monster became available.

Nicotine gum and patches were the mainstays of this across-the-counter arsenal. When they first came on the market, both the gum and the patch were prohibitively expensive; only those serious about quitting needed apply. But thanks to skyrocketing state tobacco taxes, it's now cheaper to chew nicotine gum or be on the patch than it is to smoke.

You're supposed to use these smoking cessation devices to quit smoking, not support your habit. But getting off them can be difficult, and common sense says it's probably healthier to chew the gum or stay on the patch than it is to start smoking again. In the past five years, I've only smoked a total of two cartons of cigarettes.

I've been strung-out on gum and patches instead.

The gum is definitely the worst. Oh, it has its advantages. If you're not a heavy smoker, you can buy the 4 mg pieces and bite them in two, cutting the price of your fix in half. Plus you can chew it anytime, anywhere--even on the airplane. But that's part of the problem, too. You start chewing it a lot. Regular, mint or orange, it doesn't matter--it tastes like shit. You get nasty sores in your mouth and they sting like hell when you chew the gum. It's super hard to kick a gum habit. I know people who've been chewing it for years.

In my opinion, the patch, or nicotine transdermal delivery system, is a better way to go. I prefer the Nicoderm brand. It begins with a 21 mg/ day patch that sends the time-released equivalent of a pack of Marlboro Lights coursing through your bloodstream over a 24-hour period. After two to four weeks on the 21 mg/day patch, you switch to a 14 mg/day patch; after two to four more weeks, you switch to a 7 mg/day patch.

It's a slow, gradual taper. Just like down at the methadone clinic.

It works, if you "stick" with the program. But each step down can prolong the inevitable agony. You feel it when you cut down from a 21 mg patch to a 14 mg patch; it's worse going from 14 mg to 7 mg. At each and every juncture, the monster lies waiting, and the final step is the worst one of all.

Seven milligrams to zero. Cold turkey. Time to make a stand. Or feed the monster.

At this point, it seems fair to ask: Why mess around with the monster at all? If you don't have the guts to face it, why not just cave in and buy a pack of cigarettes?

Glad you asked.

Back in the day when a pack of smokes cost $1.75, no problem. You smoke one and throw the other nineteen away. I've done this enough times to know that if you really don't want to smoke the whole pack, soak it in water, otherwise you'll be Dumpster diving before the night is through.

But now cigarettes have more than doubled in price. At four bucks a pop, buying a pack and throwing most of it away isn't really an option. You buy a pack, you almost feel obligated to smoke the whole thing, and when you smoke a whole pack of cigarettes after you've been on the gum or the patch for several months, you will get sick.

So you learn. The monster doesn't want a whole pack. It wants just one.

But no one sells single cigarettes anymore, and bumming a smoke has become an increasingly dubious proposition. Fewer people indulge and the ones who do aren't necessarily a generous lot. It's gotten downright rude out there, in fact.

Where to turn? For me, there has only been one direction. Toward butt-laden ashtrays.

My first attempts at butt-stalking were awkward and feeble, the nervous bumblings of a rank amateur. My approach was entirely too obvious. Fortunately, I was never detected, and my talents blossomed. I learned how to spot brand name butts from far-away distances; how to judge the amount of cigarette beneath the sand by the angle of the filter sticking out above it. I discovered where all the best ashtrays were, the ones with the longest butts, and made regular rounds of them, marveling at my finds:

The continual supply of Benson & Hedges snubbed out far short of their lengthy life span by one of the vice presidents at the place where I used to work; the half-smoked Marlboro Reds in the ashtray at the Shell station; the stale Basic Light found squashed in the parking lot at the grocery store.

I became addicted to butt-stalking's shoplifting-like rush and dedicated to its craft, devising the infamous key-drop technique for filching butts out of ashtrays situated in crowded areas.

It works like this: I stroll up to an ashtray, just like an ordinary customer. Five to ten feet out, I throw my keys down so they slide up against the ashtray. Whoops! I dropped my keys! I stoop down to pick them up, blocking everyone else's view of the ashtray, and as I stand back up, I snag the butt that I've selected in advance.

It works like a charm. I've dropped my keys in front of more stores than I care to remember.

There's only one I'd really like to forget.

It was one of the best stops on the route, a drug store ashtray loaded with prime buttage. The key-drop went according to plan. But when I stooped down to pick the keys up, I kicked them under an automatic sliding door. The key fob got caught under the door. I snagged the butt with one hand and tugged on the key with the other as the door kept opening and closing, yanking me back and forth across the rubber entrance mat. I finally freed the keys, turned around, and ran smack into a store employee.

I recognized her. She smoked Virginia Slims and often left long butts in the ashtray in front of the store, like the butt I was holding in my fingers.

I tried to palm it, but it was too late. She had seen the whole sequence. She turned away in disgust. I never went back to that store. But I still haven't stopped feeding the monster.

Sitting in the cafe with me, Lee Page was totally serious.

"You want to quit smoking? I'll tell you how to quit. I know the secret. It's expensive, though. First you get a doctor to cut your throat from here to here," he explained, tracing the horizontal scar that runs from one side of his neck to the other. "Then you have him put a hole here, so you can breath, and then you have him cut your voice box out."

It works. Page, 66 years old, hasn't smoked since being diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1985, the same year the doctor ripped his throat out and punched a hole, called a stoma, in his neck. The stoma whistles when he breathes. He started smoking as a teenager and had a two-pack-a-day habit when he quit. He smoked "the only decent cigarette in the world, non-filter Camels."

"There's not too many of us left," he said fraternally.

A moment of silence for all the dead Camel smokers.

"You, too, can use one of these," he buzzed through his electric larynx. "It's a great way to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of your beloved." He prefers not to use the device, however. It took him three years to learn to speak without it. Losing his voice was worse than losing an appendage. "I had no idea how much of my persona was invested in my voice. No idea at all."

I interviewed Page, an American Cancer Society volunteer who works with new laryngectomy patients, because I have not been doing well on the patch. I needed someone like him to provide some additional motivation, to help scare me straight.

I explained the whole butt-stalking thing to him. "You're sick," he rasped in macabre admiration.

The memory of Page's whistling stoma kept me clean for three days. On the fourth day, I ran into a friend of mine who smokes and I bummed a cigarette from him. By the next day, I was back to butt-stalking. Which pretty much brings us up to the present. I remember my last cigarette like it was yesterday. That's because it was yesterday. There are several versions of the myth of Narcissus. In the one in which I find the most hope, Narcissus does not realize he is looking at his own reflection at first. It is only when he realizes that he is looking at himself and that his amorous feelings will never be requited that his suffering begins.

He could look away. He knows it's just a reflection. Yet he chooses to suffer.

In this moment, I find hope. After I've exhausted my last nicotine patch, the monster will come, I am sure of it. I will look in the mirror and see the man who feeds the monster. I cannot loathe this reflection, for it is a part of me.

But I can look away. Toward a vision of perfection that's nearly pure as Narcissus himself. I can choose not to suffer. So I will look away. I will make a stand. I will beat the monster. I shall not smoke again.

The Adventures of Wally the Watt

Once upon a time, in the kingdom of California, there was a watt named Wally. Wally was an energetic young lad, a boy who worked hard on his family's farm. He was schooled in the traditional ways of life and learned his lessons well.

Wally's family farm grew, processed and delivered electricity -- a potent juice prized throughout the land. His was a simple life, and he would amuse himself by hopping and skipping through the fields with his many brothers and sisters, darting around like fireflies on a warm summer's eve.

But it wasn't all fun and games on the prosperous farm, for Wally and his siblings had important jobs to do. Under the guidance of their parents -- Peegee and Andy -- Wally and his siblings planted the seeds of electrons, made sure they grew safe and strong, harvested the crop and processed it into electricity.

Wally's family farm holdings were called PG&E Farms, a name his parents cleverly derived from blending their two first names. They were one of the three largest electricity farming families in California, along with the Edisons of Southern California and Stan Diego's family in the far south.

All three agricultural empires were vast and powerful, but growing electricity was an expensive process, so each family's operation was also supported by thousands of investors, who bought stock in the family farm. After the crop was harvested and taken to market, the shareholders reaped a share of the profits.

Taking the crop to market was Wally's favorite part of his farm duties. He knew how much people loved and needed their high-powered juice, so each delivery filled him with pride. Electricity brought such light and warmth into people's lives that they considered it as essential as air or water.

With a bright smile on his face and a tune on his lips, Wally traveled the lines through California's verdant fields and sparkling cities, delivering his family's powerful juice to factories, schools and homes.

After many years of traveling the same lines, Wally came to know the routes well. He knew when he needed to work up a head of steam to carry a difficult section, and when he could take it easy. During the summers, Wally delivered extra juice to cool California's Central Valley, where it was hot and dry. Winters always brought extra trips to the beautiful Pacific Northwest to protect against the cold air.

Wally's work was steady and predictable: Plant the seeds, harvest the crop, process the juice and take it to market. That was the routine he knew from as far back as he could remember. Wally came to know his customers well, and they knew Wally as a reliable, hard-working young fellow.

Now, Wally's family was always well-paid for its crops ... very well paid. In fact, that's where the trouble began. The price that customers in California paid for the electricity crop was set by Lord PUC, a powerful commissioner who worked with a panel of advisers.

Wally's family was wealthy and well-established in California, so they were held in high esteem by Lord PUC, who always made sure the PG&E Farms and its investors could depend on a handsome profit.

Not all of Wally's customers were happy with the arrangement. People like Irene Industry, Bobby Small Business, Carl Corporation and even Joe Ratepayer complained that the subjects of other kingdoms paid just two pieces of gold for the same juice that cost Californians three gold pieces.

"Why, it's just not fair!" rose the cry across the land. "We must do something!"

Carl and Irene went so far as to threaten to grow their own electricity, and they were two of Wally's family's biggest customers. If they stopped buying Wally's juice, then the farm just wouldn't be prosperous.

Wally's family and other farmers knew they had to act and hired old members of the king's court to protect their businesses. Their savvy consultants roamed the palace hallways and met with their rulers, including Lord PUC and members of the Parliament.

The hired influence-peddlers pointed out to the rulers that electricity farming was more expensive in California because their enlightened subjects had demanded that farmers be kind to their environment and capitalize on sun, wind and water power. There was also a period when the families were encouraged to try nuclear-powered farming, which proved to be expensive. So the price of electrical juice had to go up.

But once the tide of revolt began among the rabble, it was hard to stop. Hearing the cries of the disgruntled citizens, Lord PUC even joined in the chorus, "We must appease our subjects." And the kingdom's powerful leaders took note -- and opened their pockets to campaign contributions from farmers across the country who wanted to grow electricity in California, including Irene and Carl.

After their pockets were full and the arguments were argued, California's leaders decided the best way to bring down prices was to free the electricity market from Lord PUC's control, divide up PG&E Farms among many different farmers and let them compete with each other. Their vying for market share would set the price of juice.

Peegee and Andy weren't so sure they wanted to sell their beloved farms, but Lord PUC promised they would be showered with more gold than they had ever seen, far more than their farms were worth, if they would sell most of their vast holdings. You see, Lord PUC promised to force Wally's customers to pay for all the bad investments PG&E Farms had made on their behalf over the years, such as their nuclear-powered farm in Diablo Canyon.

Eventually, Wally's parents started to like the idea of selling the farm and slowing down a little. So they sold all but a small part of their property and stashed away their newfound fortune. After that, the only job for Wally and his family was to deliver the crop to a newfangled "free" market, a crop that was now produced mostly by out-of-kingdom farmers.

And that's when Wally's life changed, and in such a way that he could never have imagined.

Wally was still doing his favorite part of the job, delivering the dynamic commodity to market. But he now worked for many different farmers, none of whom he knew and who had odd family names like Duke, Reliant and Dynegy.

Wally had always known his customers, but now he was told to travel unfamiliar lines and deliver the charged juice to customers he had never met. Often, he had to travel great distances, delivering the crop to other kingdoms even as Californians went hungry.

"It's a new world, kid," Wally was told by one of his new bosses. "Yesterday may have been all about keeping the juice flowing throughout the kingdom. But tomorrow ... tomorrow is about making mounds of money. It'll be great, kid, you'll see."

Four years later ... Dec. 12, 2000 BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!

In a smoke-filled barroom, Wally and his co-workers automatically check their pagers. Unlike the old days, Wally was now always on call, expected to zip out at a moment's notice when one of the farmers makes a big electricity sale. .

"Damn, it's mine," says Wally. "Gotta fly, boys."

Wally hit the bathroom on the way out, just to splash some water on his face and try to get his head together. He'd been hanging out here with his electron buddies for two days now, killing time, just waiting for the call that would send him flying out the door to ... where was he headed? In days of yore, he would be en route to Washington in December, but these days, he hadn't a clue as to where he'd jet off to next.

"Jesus H. Christ," Wally mumbled to himself. "Arizona-such a dull, dry place."

Here he was, charged with delivering California-grown electricity to the people in other kingdoms, at a time when his people were facing rationing and paying more than ever for the stuff. Instead, he was delivering a load to customers in the kingdom of friggin' Arizona.

"Oh, well," Wally sighed, "a job's a job."

He used to get more upset about the injustice of it all, and how his new job made him feel like a traitor to the suffering people of his own kingdom. But these days, there aren't a whole lot of other lines of work for a young charge with enormous energy bills of his own to pay.

Besides, Wally was in demand like never before, as a growing population in the western kingdoms competed to buy up crops from farms that hadn't acquired any new fields for more than 10 years. And in the new system, customers in Arizona had as much right to buy the precious juice as Californians, as long as they met the farmers' high price. In the old days, California customers got served first, but not any more.

Yet these days, Wally had little time to ponder such things, especially given his ever beeping beeper. So Wally hopped onto the grid, took the line down to the old farm in Morro Bay that his parents used to own, but which was now run by Duke Energy. The Dukes were located on the other side of the continent and had bought up a lot of the old electrical fields in the kingdom. Coming in over the ridge and dropping down into the gorgeous estuary of Morro Bay, Wally felt a little nostalgic.

His parents first started farming here back in the '50s, long before he was born. Wally now darted among the circuits, breathing in the clean, salty sea air and remembering more carefree days. Even the circuits on which he danced were soon to change, as Duke planned to upgrade the processing plants with efficient new ones.

Shaking off his reverie, Wally got back into work mode. He said hello to the farm foreman, picked up his load and hopped onto the Arizona-bound line. Wally was just pulling into Phoenix when ... BEEP BEEP BEEP!

"What the hell?" Wally mumbled to himself. "Why is my beeper going off now? I haven't even delivered the load yet."

He couldn't believe it when he saw "California" flashing on the pager. He rubbed his eyes and looked around before reading the beeper again. Sure enough, his tired eyes did not deceive him. He figured his beeper had shorted out, as he had never been sent back and forth in one day without dropping the load.

Wally called technical support to let them know his beeper was on the fritz. The tech guy told him that there was nothing wrong with the pager and that he and his load of juice had better head back to California ASAP. Wally thought he'd better check in with the farmer back in Morro Bay.

When Mr. Duke found out Wally was still in Phoenix, he flipped. Wally was baffled and innocently asked what was up. His boss yelled, "$1,400, that is what is up," adding Wally better high-tail it back or he would never work in this business again.

Wally nearly shorted out: $1,400 per megawatt! He'd never seen a crop go for that much! Why, just last May, that same crop was selling for just $47. Unbelievable! Maybe going to Arizona with the electricity reduced the supply in California and made the market grow fonder. To Wally it seemed so pointless and wasteful.

As he reversed course and headed back to his home kingdom, Wally pondered the situation. Why would they order a crop shipment to Arizona if they didn't intend to even use it? And why would that same shipment suddenly be worth an astounding $1,400 back in California? Wally had seen a lot of strange stuff since the so-called free market was unleashed and driven by supply and demand. But this had to be the strangest. He decided to seek the counsel of his father the next time they saw each other.

Dec. 13, 2000 Wally was looking forward to working on home turf in California for a while, but as he was shaving the next morning, his cell phone rang. Wally's stomach tightened. He answered and heard it was Big Bob's voice, one of the farmers he often worked for, and he was screaming incoherently, something about "pinko bureaucrats." Wally wondered how Big Bob could complain given the price of the charged juice climbed steadily to heights never before attained. He suspected the unprecedented fluctuation of the market had pushed the man over the edge.

"Mr. Bob, sir, please slow down," Wally pleaded.

"Slow down!" Bob thundered. "For Christ's sake, we are on the brink of war!"

Wally held the phone out from his ear and heard him ranting and raving about those "commie feds" and other "muckity mucks," who not only temporarily slashed the price of the electrical crop down to $250 per megawatt, but would soon order all western energy farmers to sell into California.

"That piss-ant price would not even come close to covering the cost of producing the juice," he wailed. And as if that weren't bad enough, the old-time farmers like Peegee and Andy, who now bought and resold Big Bob's power-packed juice, claimed they could no longer afford to buy it.

Big Bob, cursing some more, said it wasn't his fault those "friggin' former farmers" weren't smart enough to cover their costs. Wally wasn't sure what he was talking about, but then remembered hearing one of his delivery buddies mention that the consumers' rates were frozen by Lord PUC and the other rulers, under the assumption that the retail price of the juice would fall under the new system.

And the king, known to all as The Gray One, knew that if he let the price his subjects paid for juice rise as steeply as the electricity farmers had raised their prices, then there would be an open revolt in the kingdom, and The Gray One might even be deposed as king.

Big Bob accused those "illustrious," California-born farmers of being nothing more than old dogs who couldn't learn new tricks. "They just couldn't compete so they had to plead for the King's protection," he snarled. Wally tried to object, given it was his family that Mr. Bob was now calling "old dogs," but just as he was about to confront his irate client, Bob told him to take the next few days off.

"Wow, an unscheduled break," thought Wally, who was used to having only scheduled vacations when there was a crop rotation or other maintenance times at the farms. "And I could really use some time off."

Wally woke up the next day bright and early as usual and was just about to jump into a business suit when he realized he had the day off. So he threw on some jeans, made a big breakfast and read the sports section of the newspaper. After that, he decided to head down to the local coffee house.

When Wally entered he couldn't believe his eyes -- it was packed to the gills with fellow delivery guys and gals, and many of his brothers and sisters. "Hey gang," Wally shouted. "What are all of you doing here?"

"We all got some time off. Isn't it great," said Willie the Watt, his arm around Wilma. "None of us are too sure how people are going to get their juice, but in this new system, we just do what we're told, right. They say take it easy, so here we are."

Wally sipped a latté and shot the breeze all day with the gang and later that evening went outside for a stroll. Less than a block away he ran into Hillary Hydro from Seattle. The region was hit with an Arctic blast and there had been almost no rain in December, seriously impacting hydro -- a huge source of cheap power for the region.

"Hey Hillary, what are you doing in our neck of the woods?" Wally asked.

Hillary told Wally that she got last minute orders from the powers-that-be to deliver their state-grown juice to California, pronto. "It is just so unfair. It is bitterly cold in Washington and we have to send our precious, limited juice to all of you in the Golden State so you can keep as many lights on in your house as you like. And all of you workers are sitting around coffee houses." And then she started to cry.

Wally tried to think of something reassuring to say, but he was at a loss, so he just handed her his handkerchief. She blew her nose and added, "And if that wasn't bad enough, all this intensive electricity farming is drying up our lakes behind the dams and turning our poor, endangered salmon into paté."

After a final, theatrical sniffle, Hillary composed herself. She said she was in a mega hurry to get back home, adding she hoped things wouldn't be so dim the next time they met.

Wally felt terrible. He walked slowly back to a bar, found an empty barstool and ordered a martini, extra dry. While nursing his drink in silence he started thinking about his parents. He promised himself he'd pay them that long-overdue visit.

While lost in his thoughts, Wally heard the voice of The Gray One. He realized it was coming from the television overhead and looked up. The Gray One seemed to be holding some kind of news conference. Wally listened as He railed against electricity farmers for charging too much for their crop, and for withholding thousands of desperately needed megawatts of juice from the kingdom.

"We are in an incredibly bizarre situation that shows how the market can be gamed and manipulated," His Grayness proclaimed.

Wally looked around the packed bar and also thought about his trip to Arizona and back. Things had changed since the farm was sold and the more he tried to make sense of it, the more confused he became. So, he resolved to talk to his parents and get some answers.

Dec. 14, 2000 -- Since selling off their farm holdings, Peegee and Andy Watt spent most of their time holed up in their large house in San Francisco. They weren't as busy as they once were. They still ran some farms, but mostly they just watched over their children, making sure the crops got to market safe and sound. When Wally arrived at his folk's house he walked inside. "Mom, Dad," he called, "anyone home?" There was silence and then he heard some stirring upstairs, so he bound up the staircase. Just as he reached the top of the stairs, his dad shuffled out of the bedroom in his pajamas.

Oh no, Wally thought, not this again. As much as Wally loved his parents, there was one thing he couldn't stand about them. They were incurable hypochondriacs. When his mom had the sniffles, she was sure it was pneumonia; when his dad had a headache, he was convinced he had a brain tumor. A lifetime of experience had taught Wally that their perceived ailments coincided with their incessant financial worries.

When Peegee and Andy saw Wally, they squeezed him tight, holding on for an uncomfortably long time.

"Son," Wally's dad said in a somber tone, "sit down. There's something your mother and I need to discuss with you. Something important."

A feeling of dread swept over Wally. He had a good idea of what was coming next. The drama.

"Wally, you know your mother and I have been plagued with health and financial worries all our lives," Andy said. "We have put up a brave fight, but things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse and we don't know if we will make it past the new year."

Wally tried not to roll his eyes or snicker.

His father looked at Wally more intensely and said, "Son, things have never, ever been this bad, and to make matters worse, we can't even pay our bills to the farmers. Here we sell our farms to those damned foreign growers, and they turn around and charge us more for the juice than our customers will even pay. We're stuck in the middle. We're broke, Wally, dead broke! Worse than broke, we're thinking about filing for bankruptcy because we can't pay our debts."

"Wh-, wha-, what do you mean?" Wally stammered in disbelief. "What about this house? What about all your fine jewelry, Mother, and the Cadillac in the garage, Dad? And your investors, can't they help you? What about all of your retirement money, have you spent all of that, too?"

"Oh no, son, we're just talking about the checking account. Income from the farms and other investments go straight into the retirement account, so don't you worry. The whole family shall be well taken care of in our old age," Andy said. "But there isn't enough in the checking account to cover our escalating debts to the farmers, not unless Lord PUC lets us charge a lot more for the juice, and I mean mega more."

Wally then remembered his trip to Arizona and back, and the extra time off that he had recently, and asked his dad to explain what was going on.

"Well, do you remember how Lord PUC used to make sure we didn't charge anybody too much for our crop?" Andy asked.

"Yes."

"Well, people assumed that with lots of farmers competing with each other, that would naturally lower prices. But they forgot about how much people need electricity, and about how they'll pay whatever they have to get it. Well, the farmers know this as sure as the sun rises, that if they just hold onto the crop until people are good and hungry, they can charge whatever they want," Andy said. "And these farmers don't have to obey the old rules."

"Well, why doesn't The Gray One just order the farmers to sell at reasonable prices?" asked a wide-eyed Wally.

A sad kind of look came over the faces of Andy and Peegee. They used to be so close to The Gray One, who would always answer their calls on the first ring. But these days, when Andy calls him, the phone just rings and rings.

Finally, Andy said, "I guess he's not all-powerful after all."

Wally wasn't satisfied with his dad's answer, but he knew there wasn't much more he could say. So Wally returned to his job, but vowed to visit his parents, who got sicker and sicker and sicker.

Jan. 17, 2001 -- During the next visit, Wally saw his parents jump as the phone rang. They looked worried. After a few rings, Andy cautiously picked up the receiver and said hello. Wally could hear the shouting on the other end of the line, "Pay up now or we will cut you off!" echoed a voice that Wally thought sounded like Mr. Reliant, one of the new electricity farmers.

Suddenly, Andy dropped the phone, and both Peegee and Andy started staggering around the room, moaning and groaning. While clutching their chest with a hand, they cried out in unison, "It's all over! We are finished!"

The scene continued for several more minutes, as a stunned Wally watched Peegee and Andy flail about the room, staggering to and fro. Even though the scene seemed surreal, Wally was genuinely worried about his parents and so he called 9-1-1.

Ten minutes later, just as the paramedics burst in through the front door, Peegee and Andy did one final sweep of their arms, pleaded with Wally to take care of his brothers and sisters, and collapsed. Wally jumped in the back of the ambulance and held on tight as it sped down unlit streets through dark neighborhoods that were victims of the dreaded "rolling blackouts." When he saw lights in the distance, he knew they were close to the hospital.

Later that night, while seated by the hospital beds where his parents were on life support systems, Wally's vigil was interrupted by a nurse who said that he had a call. He picked up the phone and heard the exalted voice of The Gray One. So now he calls, Wally thought, after all this.

"Wally, I was so terribly sorry to hear about Peegee and Andy," The Gray One said. "I never thought this problem I inherited would come to this. I had the misfortune of believing Our Great Emperor in Washington would resolve this crisis, but he refused to get involved in inter-kingdom affairs. But don't worry, I've got good news."

"What is it, sir?"

"We're going to deal with the farmers on your behalf. Me, the Lord PUC, all of us here in the capital. We are going to buy and help deliver the juice for you. What do you say to that?"

"Um, uh, that, er, uh, sounds just great, sir." After a long pause, Wally asked if he could ask a question. The Gray One replied, "Please, feel free." Wally asked him about what could be done about his mom and dad's mountain of debt. The Gray One said nothing but goodbye.

Wally was as confused as ever. He wondered what price the Gray One would pay for the crop and how long he would continue to buy the juice. What would happen to the experimental market that Wally adjusted to, and who would deliver the juice? Wally also worried about having a new boss.

Wally's head started spinning but stopped when he heard his parents troubled breathing. He wasn't sure if Peegee and Andy could hear him, but decided to tell them The Gray One had called to say everything was going to work out.

First Peegee and then Andy stirred in their beds and then they muttered something. Wally listened closer and heard his dad ask in a weak voice, "Will Joe Ratepayer and Bob Small Business bail us out again?"

Wally wasn't sure how to respond, as he didn't want to disturb his parents but also because he didn't know the answer to that question. He was just so unsure of so much these days but one thing he did know was that saddling Joe and Bob with his parent's huge debt would alleviate his parents sufferings and have the greedy farmers laughing all the way to the bank. But it was terribly unfair. He feared it could even lead to a rebellion.

Wally kissed his parents and told them to sleep. He tiptoed out of the room and into the blackened street. As he headed home, Wally started feeling sure his parents would recover and that the lights in the kingdom would come back on soon. At least he had hope.

I Want My SUV

"All my life I have searched for a car that feels a certain way ... powerful like a gorilla, yet soft & yielding like a Nerf Ball."

-- Homer Simpson

"You sure you want an Excursion?"

The sales guy at the auto mall eyeballed me as we walked across the sun-baked lot. Apparently he was doing his best to figure out why a 20-something in wrinkled slacks might be interested in the world's largest SUV. "Have you got a lot of kids?"

"Nope."

"Maybe we ought to check out the Expedition first. It's basically the same thing, just a few feet shorter."

"Nah," I said, "I'm pretty sure I'm gonna want the big boy."

I had donned a tie, slicked back the hair and concocted a lame story about an imaginary employer, all in order to get up close and personal with a mechanical giant. Earlier this year, in the face of widespread opposition from environmentalists and consumer advocates, Ford had raised its industrial middle finger and rolled out a monster. The Excursion: a 3.5-ton, V-10-powered, nine-passenger-carrying, 10-mile-to-the-gallon behemoth. Christened the "Exxon Valdez of Vehicles" by the Sierra Club, it was, at birth, the mother of all SUVs.

Naturally, I wanted to get behind the wheel.

"So you work in high tech, huh?"

"Uh, yeah," I replied, quickly trying to remember my own line of crap. "Our company's probably gonna go public this summer, and were getting new company cars. They want me to get a Taurus, but I said no way."

"The Taurus is a good car," said Sales Guy, a row of new Taurus sedans gleaming behind him.

"Yeah, but I want something that'll make a real impression on clients. You know what I mean?"

"Well," he said, pulling open the rear hatch of a $40,000 Excursion Limited, "this will definitely do that."

I was taken aback slightly as I stared into the Excursion's ergonomic abyss. I couldn't help but wonder who it was that needed this much space. Were there actually CEOs who needed to drive eight clients to lunch? Were there Mormon patriarchs out there who were this prolific? Soccer moms this overwhelmed? It seemed almost laughable. Looking into the depths of the thing, I could almost perceive a hint of the Earth's curvature. It was ridiculous, unnecessary and, somehow, strangely appealing.

"Can we take it for a spin?"

Sales Guy perked up and smiled. "I'll go get the keys."

Fad Gone Mad

Amigo. Blazer. Bravada. Cherokee. CR-V. Defender. Denali. Discovery. Durango. Envoy. Escalade. Excursion. Expedition. Explorer. 4Runner. Grand Cherokee. Grand Vitara. Hummer. Jimmy. Land Cruiser. LX470. Montero. Mountaineer. ML430. Navigator. Passport. Pathfinder. QX4. Range Rover. Rav4. Rodeo. RX300. Sequoia. Sidekick. SLX. Sportage. Suburban. Tahoe. Trooper. Vehicross. Wrangler. X5. Xterra. Yukon.

Behold the alphabet of our national obsession.

Whether oddly luxurious or stripped down and serious, these SUVs all share determined, manly nameplates, titles that promise adventurous prestige. The names allude to faraway places, peoples conquered and nature tamed, and not especially to the natural habitat of the American SUV -- the three-car garage, the kids' soccer tournament and the Home Depot parking lot.

Once relegated to our country's back roads, farms and wilderness areas, these bold vehicles are now the leather-trimmed objects of suburban dreams and the focus of environmentalist nightmares. The arguments against them are legion: They suck fuel, almost never go off-road, tend to crush people in smaller cars, roll over easier than a one-legged drunk and pump out enough emissions to kill a chimp.

Yet with SUV and light-truck sales now approaching half of all U.S. car sales, it seems we are just beginning to ride the crest of the SUV explosion. It's almost enough to ask, how did this all happen and why do we want more?

Enter the Minivan

Although not quite as bad as George Orwell had dreamed, 1984 was the year that Dodge introduced the Caravan, the world's first minivan. In fact, Chrysler managed to pull off something of a coup that year: In spite of its abject ugliness, somewhat shoddy workmanship and lack of any trace of automotive sex appeal, the Dodge Caravan sold like crazy. Chrysler had hit paydirt with the minivan for several reasons. First and foremost, the large, affordable American cars of the 1970s were gone for good. Due in part to the fuel embargoes and shortages of the late '70s and partly because of increasingly stringent federal emissions regulation, big V-8-powered cars were no longer a viable option for most folks.

Prodded by regulatory and market forces, the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) were suddenly forced into doing something they had never been good at: building small, reliable and fuel-efficient front-wheel-drive cars. Japanese manufacturers, however, excelled in that arena and began kicking ass, taking names and claiming unprecedented market share. American manufacturers had lost their way and were in dire need of an all-American money-maker.

The minivan was it. Minivans fulfilled America's need for a big, spacious vehicle, and from the manufacturers' standpoint it dodged piles of new federal mandates in terms of both emissions and safety standards. The minivan didn't have to meet federal car standards precisely because it wasn't a car. It was, to use the government classification, a light truck or van (an LTV). With the minivan, an American car company suddenly had a highly profitable product that it would take the Japanese years to match -- a big, boxy people mover.

Yet, while wildly popular, the minivan never really won any hearts. Actually, it soon became something of a bad word:

minivan, min'i van, n. A big, slow and boring vehicle that certain schmucks are forced to buy because the vehicles they actually wanted couldn't fit the kids.

Its utility could not be denied, but it had suburbia written all over it. No one actually dreamed of owning a minivan. So arose the question: How to make big sexy?

The answer, it turned out, was trucks.

Actually, the trucks were already there. The SUV is by no means a recent phenomenon. In fact, the longest continuously manufactured model in the country is, believe it or not, the Chevrolet Suburban. That particular four-door heavy-duty truck was introduced in 1935, and GM's been cranking them out every year since then.

Chevy wasn't alone: Toyota, Ford, Dodge and a few others all had SUV products on the market in the mid-'80s. The trick was to make them luxurious and comfortable enough to appeal to the average consumer. Once these companies began to introduce SUVs that were affordable, rugged and comfortable, consumers fell in love. Main Street USA began to fill up with Pathfinders, Explorers and 4Runners. Suddenly people had the option of buying an affordably big vehicle without the stigma of being minivan owners. They loved it.

The demise of the high-end sports car market also fueled the SUV trend. Demand for the two-seaters, once a highly profitable segment for auto manufacturers, had simply bottomed out in the 1990s. According to the automotive press, manufacturers like Porsche saw nearly a 75 percent decrease in sales between 1985 and 1995. Venerable sports cars like the Mazda RX7 were no longer being imported, and the Nissan 300ZX was taken out of production altogether.

So severe was this trend that GM slashed its Corvette research-and-development expenditures to zero. Adding insult to injury, Autoweek magazine reported in 1998 that GM was also considering retooling the plant that built the Chevy Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird into a facility specifically designed to turn out only SUVs.

SUVs quickly became the new industry cash cow, generating high profits on each unit sold. Ford, the SUV and truck sales leader, reports that since 1991 the SUV market has expanded from approximately 900,000 units on the road to nearly 2.8 million.

Consumers voted with their checkbooks and the industry responded. But now, some are beginning to argue, the trend has gone far enough.

The extent to which the SUV backlash has grown is readily evident at cartalk.com. The Web site of radio funny-men Tom and Ray Magliozza ("Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers") is currently hosting a Big Dumb Car of the Millennium Competition. So far, the Ford Excursion has the lead with 26 percent of the votes, beating out such historic lemons as the Yugo, the Pinto and the AMC Gremlin. Ouch.

Upside Down

After driving the Excursion off the lot, Sales Guy pulled over and allowed me to take the captain's chair. I climbed up and took a moment to examine the interior.

Aside from the fake plastic wood moldings and the general aesthetic overkill, everything seemed to be all right. Distinguishing features included a nice driver's seat (electronically adjustable), a decent sound system and a center console storage area the likes of which the world has never seen. If for some reason you had the need, you could easily store Gary Coleman in there. (Hey, Gary! Hand me that Metallica CD, would ya?)

Finally, I leaned back into the leather bucket seat, checked the side mirror and punched the gas. Powered by Ford's 6.8-liter, 310-horsepower Triton V-10, the vessel had surprising agility. It shot out into traffic without a problem.

"Are you going to be spending much time on the highway?" asked Sales Guy.

"You bet," I replied. "Our home office is out of state, so I'm going to be on the road quite a bit."

"O.K.," he said. "Let's see how she handles on the freeway."

Sales Guy pointed to the on-ramp and I aimed for it. I planned to hit the on-ramp with some speed, head into the curve quickly and try get a feel for the bulk behind the vehicle.

But as soon as the road started to bend, the Excursion responded badly. It lurched and swayed into the corner in a way that made me feel uneasy. As Sales Guy held onto the dash, I was suddenly very aware of the 7,000 pounds I was pushing down the road. I eased off the gas and waited for the on-ramp to straighten out.

"Kind of tricky in the corners, eh?"

"Yeah," said Sales Guy.

Consumer Reports magazine may have fired the first real shot in the war against SUVs when, in 1988, the magazine highlighted the minuscule Suzuki Samurai and its tendency to flip over faster than a gymnast when thrown hard into a turn. Suzuki fought back, but the Samurai was doomed; bumper stickers began appearing on the tiny SUVs that said "This Side Up."

Although Suzuki immediately filed a suit claiming libel, Consumer Reports refused to back off. During a test drive of the 1996 Isuzu Trooper, the magazine reported the same rollover propensity during its short-course emergency avoidance maneuver. The cover of its October 1996 issue screamed "Unsafe" and displayed a dramatic photo of a Trooper flying along on two wheels like in some bad '70s cop show.

Like Suzuki, Isuzu filed libel charges, seeking $242 million in damages. Isuzu contended that Consumers Union, the non-profit company behind Consumer Reports, had purposely driven the Trooper in a manner that would lead to rollover in order to inspire further government regulation of SUVs. Just last month, a federal jury in Los Angeles said "Nice try" and ruled in favor of the magazine.

Proponents continue to argue that SUVs and light trucks cannot be driven like cars due to their high centers of gravity and should not be held to the same standards as cars. And although SUV manufacturers currently post warning labels regarding the dangers of rollover inside the vehicles, it is an issue the federal government is "seriously" looking into.

According to a report issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1998, "30 percent of all passenger car and LTV fatalities were due to rollover crashes. But LTVs are involved in fatal rollover crashes at a much higher rate."

The report goes on to say that in 1996 SUVs were involved in 37 percent of all rollover fatalities that year (followed by pickups, at 24 percent). This demonstrated rollover tendency seems to contrast with the popular perception that SUVs are safe.

"Do you think safety is a concern with this thing?" I asked Sales Guy.

"No way," he said. "Listen, if you hit somebody in this thing, you're gonna go right over them. Plus this thing has got everything, dual airbags, side impact beams, you name it."

Car Killers

Sales Guy was probably right. Driving the Excursion in traffic was like watching a movie or playing a video game -- the threat posed by the vehicles around you just didn't seem real. Due to their size, SUVs do in fact pose unique a danger known to insiders as "crash incompatibility." Because they usually ride high off the ground, SUVs tend to over-shoot passenger car bumpers and hit directly into the passenger compartment of the opposing car. The government has spent some money to prove that this is a bad thing. A recent NHTSA report came to the following conclusion:

"An analysis of crash data revealed that LTV-to-car collisions result in a higher rate of fatalities than car-to-car collisions in both frontal and left-side impacts."

Basically, big vehicles crush little vehicles. Nice work, fellas.

Although SUVs do pose a threat to those of us who drive average-sized vehicles, the situation was actually worse in the 1970s. According to Department of Transportation data, nearly 70 percent of all new cars sold in 1975 weighed in excess of 4,000 pounds. By 1997, only 40 percent of cars and LTVs fit that same category while the percentage of light vehicles on the road remained relatively stable. Although your odds of being crushed like a bug are slightly less today, statistics won't be much consolation to those caught on the wrong end of a red-light-running Excursion.

At least we can rest assured that most people buying gigantic SUVs are graying baby-boomers, not exactly the types looking to burn rubber in front of the Dairy Queen.

Pickup Good, SUV Bad?

While it is easy to hate SUVs, defending that position may not be so simple. The anti-SUV stance is probably best recognized as part fad-bashing ("They're everywhere and they're making me sick!") and part what might be called consumption-bashing ("Those things are too big, use too much resources and create too much exhaust!")

Fad-bashing is the great American tradition of slinging arrows at the objects of mass popularity. Whether it's a movie star, a boy band or a congressman, anything that draws excess media attention will soon become the object of national ridicule and disdain. Now that SUVs suddenly represent every fifth car on the road, it is our patriotic duty as Americans to comment on the trend. The easiest way to get involved in such a populist movement is to stand up and exclaim, "Those things suck!"

Strangely, full-sized pickups don't draw the same criticism.

Consider the facts: There are more full-sized pickups on the road than there are full-sized SUVs. The pickups have identical engines to the SUVs, the same fuel requirements, and a similar impact on the environment. Yet the prevalence and impact of the American pickup, for some reason, has completely bypassed debate. The reason? Pickups are not a fad. They are a utilitarian tradition and therefore, perhaps, beyond reproach.

The consumption-bashing side of the anti-SUV movement, however, is fairly more complex. The argument might be summed up like this: Because we live in a world of limited resources, individuals should not be allowed to consume more than is dictated by that individual's need.

Inarguably, this is a rational point of view. We live in a world wherein a good share the population lives on less than two dollars a day. Americans in particular inhabit a country that consumes an inordinate amount of the world's resources.

This disparity inevitably creates feelings of self-conscious guilt. To then point an accusatory finger at SUV owners, however, is at once to identify the disparity and wholly separate yourself from it. It is an attitude that sidesteps personal responsibility by saying, "I have recognized the problem, and it is you."

A rational onlooker might comment, "Let him without a car cast away the first gas card."

Truth be told, most of even the largest SUVs have fuel economy standards nearly identical to a new Porsche 911 (about 20 mpg), a vehicle capable of carrying only two snotty people and a small suitcase. And according to the most recent government data, the SUV's contribution to our smog problem pales in comparison to role played by commercial diesels and aging, oil-burning passenger vehicles (gross polluters).

Operating completely outside emissions regulation and representing a mere 2 percent of vehicles on the road, commercial trucks and busses create over 30 percent of the toxic, particle-laden smog released into our atmosphere. The EPA also reports that that gross polluters, while comprising only 5 to 15 percent of the vehicles on the road, are responsible for at least half of all auto-related smog.

In an era of improving air quality (national smog levels were at their worst in the mid-1970s), painting the modern SUV as a major source of our environmental woes not only overstates their impact on air quality but, to a larger degree, ignores the big picture.

Ford Feels Your Pain

In a bizarre (not to mention unprecedented) PR move this May, Ford Chairman William Ford responded to the growing SUV backlash by apologizing for the vehicles during an annual stockholders' meeting. While acknowledging that its SUVs emit more pollution than cars and pose broad safety concerns, Ford admitted that his company will continue to build the popular vehicles, including the Excursion, saying that, "If we didn't provide that vehicle, somebody else would. And they wouldn't provide it as responsibly as we do."

In fact, given market forces and the company's history, you could argue that Ford doesn't have much of a choice in the matter. It's a truck company. The Ford F-series pickup has been the top-selling vehicle in the country for 17 years running. Also, Ford has fed the SUV craze more than any other manufacturer. Case in point: The Ford Explorer is currently the most widely owned SUV in the country. And despite sweet-talking the media, Ford already plans to roll out another SUV this summer, a mid-sized model called the Escape.

To be fair, Ford actually has tried to make its SUVs play nice with other vehicles. For example, the new 2000 Excursion comes equipped with a solid-steel bar (called the Blocker Beam tm) attached to the front of its lower frame. Honest to God, it's a device designed to keep your car from sliding under the Excursion when it runs into you and your family. The manufacturer's brochure puts it this way:

"In the event of a frontal collision with a car, the BLOCKER BEAM (tm) is designed to make contact with the frame rails of a car. This helps the car from sliding beneath the higher-riding Excursion."

Now, if that's not corporate responsibility, I don't know what is.

I Want My SUV

SUVs don't make sense for the average driver. Well, no shit. But when did American cars ever make sense? We are the country that gave birth to the three-ton Cadillac, the five-room RV, the 200-mph Viper and now the Excursion -- all hideous vehicles in their own rights, to be sure, but also vehicles that inspire us. And, frankly, we need that.

We wear our vehicles like costumes, using them to project an image that usually has no basis in reality. In a nation of serene suburbs and cubicle jobs, driving an SUV says, "I am not boring. True, I'm going to work now, but later, when you're not looking, I will be whitewater rafting, mountain biking and climbing things. I am sexy and dangerous!"

Americans love SUVs because we are a nation of poseurs. We love to buy things that will never really have any practical application -- things like cowboy hats, pit bulls, Corvettes, assault weapons, etc. That we will never use them for their intended purpose is beside the point. The point is that they fulfill the need to pretend.

Or, as the case may be, to lie...

"So what do you think?" asked Sales Guy, as he carefully parked the Excursion.

"I love it. I'm definitely going to get one."

"Great," he said. "Do you have a business card I could have?"

"You know, I'm fresh out."

Living as if We Were Dying

Although most of the coverage of Mayor Giulani's withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race has focused on politics, the human implications of the Mayor's stunning announcement are far more important. For it constitutes one of those rare political events that transcends politics and touches upon universal issues affecting each of us.

We each, after all, face the same basic question: what are our real priorities in the face of death? If learning of an immediate threat to our health would cause us to reduce our workload, place a higher priority on love and relationship, or switch mates, why put it off just because we have not yet received a formal diagnosis of a terminal illness? We all have a terminal illness called death, after all, and it will arrive sooner than we want. Does it make sense to rearrange our lives now in accordance with this reality? What would it be like to live AS IF we, too, faced the threat of death in the relatively near future?

Not all of us, of course, would dramatically change our lives were we to receive a potentially terminal diagnosis. But the Mayor's decision points up the importance of making our choices consciously.

One wonders whether Hillary Clinton or Rick Lazio, for example, have reflected even a moment on the deeper issues posed by the Mayor's withdrawal. Would living as if she would die cause the First Lady to spend more time not less on repairing her troubled marriage? Would Mr. Lazio, who proudly reports that he is a family man, still embark on a course which will bring enormous stress to his family in the coming year? If intimations of mortality caused the Mayor to withdraw, why would not the same arguments apply for his opponent and successor?

This question was raised poignantly by Jackie McEntee, a psychologist who was dying of leukemia. She reported that her life had been so tranformed by receiving a terminal diagnois 3 years earlier that she would rather have lived a few years this new way than 25 more as she had been living before. "I call this my 'Year of Ecstasy.' Sublime, incredible things have happened. That's why I wouldn't go back. Even though my previous life was good, it was not the bliss, the splendor, the ecstasy of how I live now," McEntee stated. "Well, I've learned to live fully now. And it's my deepest wish that everyone else will also -- and without having to go through this kind of illness," she added.

The Mayor is not the first political figure to suddenly realize he hadn not been living fully when faced with a serious illness. Paul Tsongas dropped out of the Senate and also placed his highest priority on his family and getting healthy after his diagnosis. Political strategist Lee Atwater repudiated his snarling and amoral political career after contracting cancer.

But Mayor Guiliani's turnaround is particularly dramatic given his history as an unusually mean-spirited, Type A politician, his ongoing high visibility as Mayor, his uncommon hypocrisy in calling upon others to obey moral rules he himself flagrantly violated, and the remarkably insightful self-examination he revealed in his sudden decision to drop out of the Senate race.

Guiliani has become a powerful symbol of how our lives can be transformed by engaging our mortality. The real significance of his experience is not the questions it raises about him but ourselves. If so successful and polarizing a figure can so dramatically change direction upon facing his mortality, what about the rest of us? What questions does his experience raise for our own lives?

Reseting Priorities

Most of us find it hard to identify with reformed alcoholics or drug addicts who report they went so low that they had no choice but to change. But when someone like Mayor Guiliani says that "politics is important, but it is by far not the most important thing in life. Your life is more important, your health is more important, the people you love, your family, the people that are close to you and really care about you," it challenges us all. Like he, our problem may be not that our lives are too miserable but too comfortable, giving us little incentive to change even though we may not living up to our highest potentials.

The Mayor stated that "I used to think the core of me was in politics. It isn't." He said that "when you feel your mortality and your humanity you realize that, that the core of you is first of all being able to take care of your health, and second your obligations (to) the people that love you and you love." How many of us might also reconceive what our core is -- focusing not only on our physical but spiritual and emotional health, placing a higher priority on inner growth than outer success -- were we to face rather than deny our mortality?

A Focus on Feeling and Love

Mayor Giuliani's profession rewards cutting off feelings. Mrs. Clinton, for example, is widely admired for her public stoicism in reaction to her husband's misbehavior. And the Mayor himself was particularly known for his lack of feeling, for example when he released Patrick's Dorismund's criminal record after the unarmed man was shot.

His confrontation with death, however, has clearly made feelings and love a far greater priority in his life. "I tend to think now that love is more important than I thought it was", he told Tim Russert on "Meet The Press" the day after his press conference, which probably included more uses of the word "love" than all his previous public outlings combined. "I have very good friends and people that I love and love me but, being the mayor of the city that I love very much, people that I've always had a great deal of love for," ran one typical sentence.

Perhaps there is a lesson for the rest of us in the fact that even so emotionally cut-off a figure as the Mayor can discover that deep feeling and love are key values in his life when faced with his mortality.

Acknowledgement of Vulnerability, Commitment to Personal Growth

The Mayor said his reaction to his diagnosis was that "you confront your limits, you confront your mortality. You realize you're not a superman and you're just a human being ... I'm going to think about how I can be better as a person." If the Mayor isn't Superman, who of us is? What can WE do to become better people?

Increased Compassion and Empathy

The Mayor was famous for working long hours, neglecting his family and loved ones, and ignoring the plight of minorities. One of the most remarkable aspects of his withdrawal announcement, therefore, was his newfound empathy for minorities and those who need healthcare. He said he would seek to "overcome some of the barriers that maybe I placed there. Many people in the city have felt a big change. But it hasn't reached everyone in this city. And I'm going to dedicate myself to trying to figure out how we can get them to feel that too ... I'm going to try and reach out to more people to try to help more people."

He added he would "see what I can do about increasing the number of people that are covered with health care. I mean, one of the things that I feel is a tremendous sense of compassion for the people that have to make decisions like this alone."

Few of us do as much as we might to put ourselves in others' shoes. Perhaps voluntarily facing our mortality can provide new perspectives which can lead us to do so, enriching not only others' lives but our own.

Cleaning up Relationships

The most unusual aspect of the Mayor's reaction to his health crisis was his abrupt decision to publicly clean up his relationship with his wife, Donna Hanover. While this decision appears heartless, it is also understandable. The Mayor is not the first to find that increased awareness of mortality leads to a desire to lead a more authentic and less hypocritical personal life.

What about the rest of us? To what extent are we leading messy lives, which drain both us and those around os of vitality, energy and truth? Do we need to wait for a terminal illness to clean things up?

Finding Good in Bad

Giuliani hinted that he had already had the insight that some good might come out of his illness: "and there is something good that comes out of this. A lot of good things come out of it. I think I understand myself a lot better. I think I understand what's important to me better. Maybe I'm not completely there yet. I would be foolish to think that I was in a few weeks, but I think I'm heading in that direction."

It is a truism that while we devote much of our energy in life to avoiding unpleasant situations, we often most grow as a result of facing pain. Are there ways we could benefit in our own lives from confronting hard truths rather than continuing to deny or avoid them? Could the increased anxiety or fear that might come from looking at our mortality, for example, lead to a greater good?

It will be interesting to follow Mayor Giuliani's career in the years to come. The history of those who have vowed to change their lives following a heart attack, only to return to their old ways upon recovery, is not encouraging. Mr. Giuliani may well be reincarnated as a tough, unfeeling candidate for Governor some years hence.

Whatever happens with the Mayor, however, is secondary. The real question is whether others, including ourselves, can face the questions his experience raises, and answer them in our own lives. It is not easy to live as if we are dying. But, as Mr. Giuliani's story indicates, the alternative may be even worse.

Fred Branfman served as Director of Research for Governor Jerry Brown, Tom Hayden, and Senator Gary Hart's think tank. He is presently based in Santa Barbara and writes on psychological issues.

Do You Know What You Are Eating?

Do you know what you are eating?Look at the label. If one of the top few ingredients is a corn or soy derivative, for example, soy lecithin or corn syrup, then chances are, you are eating what's been dubbed "Frankenstein food"-a food whose genes scientists have tinkered with in the laboratory. Half of the nation's soybeans and a third of the corn are genetically engineered, and these ingredients are used in foods such as Fritos corn chips, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Coke, and pretty much all juices and soft drinks, McDonald's hamburger buns, Ball Park Franks and Heinz ketchup, to name only a few. Unless you eat only organic foods, chances are you eat food with genetically modified ingredients every day, and have been doing so for several years.So why isn't that on the label? That's what more and more people are trying to figure out. As it turns out, back in 1992, the Food and Drug Administration adopted a policy toward genetically modified foods that not only did not require these foods to be labelled, but did not even require mandatory safety testing for most of them.The 15 countries of the European Union have come to a different conclusion, and passed a law last year that requires food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they are commonly abbreviated, to be clearly labelled. Overseas, widespread popular opposition to the technology gained an even higher profile when Prince Charles recently announced that no genetically modified foods would pass his royal lips. Now a movement is afoot in the United States to get the FDA to require the same. Groups as diverse as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace and Chefs' Collaborative 2000, a nationwide group of prominent chefs, have found fault with current FDA policy.Behind the scenes, the cavalry is being armed; sides are being taken, and lines are being drawn in the sand. On one side are consumer activists, environmentalists and organic farmers who either want to see genetically modified foods labeled as they are in Europe, or taken completely off the market. On the other are huge multinational biotech companies, such as Monsanto and Novartis, who have invested millions of dollars in this technology, and scientists who believe that genetic engineering is the answer to the world's food supply problems. Caught in the middle are farmers who have planted their fields with these crops, but have lost their export markets and are threatened with losing domestic markets as well. It's an issue that activists say will finally make its way from the lab and the corn fields to the supermarket and the ballot box in the upcoming year. "If you look at the public opinion surveys in the US-more than 90 percent of Americans, when asked about genetic foods, say they want them mandatorily labeled so they can make choices," said Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation on Economic Trends, and the most high profile opponent of biotech foods in the United States. "Over half of Americans say they would have some reservations and would probably not choose genetic foods. So there's a large potential opposition to the foods; it's just that the public doesn't know about it. It hasn't been on the television. It's as simple as that."Biotech BreedingA quick biology lesson (no snoozing, please!): All plants and animals have a genetic blueprint, a master plan contained in the nucleus of each one of their cells. This master plan is encoded in a chemical compound called DNA, and it is divided into sections called genes. Each gene controls a different trait-just as humans have genes for brown eyes or curly hair, tomatoes have genes that make them red and sweet. Farmers have always toyed with the DNA of their crops, by selecting seeds from the plants which had, for instance, the biggest, juiciest tomatoes to replant the next year. Scientists have also toyed with plant DNA by breeding: crossing a red pepper with a green one, for instance, to try to produce a Christmas plaid-colored one (this hasn't worked yet).Traditional breeding more or less limits scientists to crossing plants that are related closely enough that they could reproduce in nature. But biotech agriculture revolutionizes breeding by allowing scientists to pluck a gene out of one kind of animal and insert it directly into a totally unrelated plant. This opens up possibilities that were unheard of before. For example, scientists have been trying to introduce an antifreeze gene from the Arctic flounder, which helps it withstand cold temperatures, to various plants, so that food could be stored at cold temperatures without freezing. The first bioengineered food to hit the market in the United States was developed in Davis, California. In 1994, the Flavr Savr tomato was designed to take longer to spoil; therefore, it could be left on the vine to ripen longer than typical supermarket tomatoes, which are customarily picked while still green and then artificially turned red by exposure to ethylene gas. The Flavr Savr tomato was invented and patented by Calgene, a company that was later bought out by Monsanto, the leading multinational biotechnology company. The tomatoes turned out to be kind of a bust commercially, though, and the initial excitement about biotech food faded into the background.Meanwhile, biotech companies such as Monsanto, Novartis, Du Pont, AstraZenica, and Aventis continued to develop a whole host of genetic innovations for their soy, corn and potato seeds, and farmers quietly switched their crops over to genetically engineered varieties. In the past few years, these new crops have found their way into processed foods all over the world.At present, more than half of all the soybeans grown in the United States, and a third of all the corn crops are now genetically modified to produce their own pesticides or to resist being damaged by chemical weed-killers. Other GMOs approved by the U.S. government for commercial sale are canola, chicory, cotton, papaya, potato, squash and tomato. Because genetically modified crops are not segregated from traditional ones, food ingredients containing soy or corn, such as soy flour, tofu, corn syrup, corn starch and corn oil are likely to contain genetically modified ingredients. Since testing for GMOs is pretty expensive and complicated, there is really no way to tell whether the food you're eating contains them. The only sure way to avoid genetically modified foods right now is to buy "certified organic." Organic foods, by law, must not contain genetically modified ingredients, though the biotechnology industry has attempted to get its products classified organic.Cons and ProsSurely you have noticed that after eating a hearty breakfast of bioengineered corn flakes and soy milk this morning, you failed to drop dead, or even come down with a case of indigestion. So what's the problem? Should you even be worried?Among people who have studied the issue, there is a huge debate about this. There are quite a few specific safety concerns, and for each there is a counter-argument as to why consumers should not be concerned at all. Many scientists say that these foods are perfectly safe, that genetically engineered foods are no more dangerous than foods developed by traditional breeding techniques, and the fact that people have been eating them for years without a major public health epidemic underscores their safety. "We've had millions, literally millions of people eat biotech food at this stage, and there is not one documented case of anybody having adverse effects," said geneticist Martina McGloughlin. McGloughlin has argued in the L.A. Times that consumers should "embrace biotechnology's benefits."But then there are others who say that these foods are new and weird, and not enough testing has been done to assure that we should be eating them. "The problem is, it's a massive game of health roulette," said Rifkin. "We're the guinea pigs. And I think the public is saying, why should we be the ones to take the risk? We're not getting anything out of it."There are some specific safety concerns: Gene splicing is not an exact science and has been known to have unforeseen consequences, such as accidentally causing a plant to produce high levels of its own natural toxins. Opponents of biotech food say that we simply do not know what the risks are, and until we do, these foods should be tested further, labelled or taken off the market altogether. Some say we should follow the "precautionary principle," which holds that if there is even a possibility that this technology will do irreparable damage to humans or the environment, then it should not be commercialized.But proponents of GMOs say that extensive testing is already done on genetically engineered foods in the lab to make sure that they are safe before they ever make it to the supermarket. No technology can ever be proven absolutely safe, and if that were the standard, practically every technology-from cell phones to diet sodas-would have to be taken off the market.Foes of GMOs point out that it is possible to transplant an allergen from one plant into another without the consumer knowing. In one oft-cited example, a Brazil nut gene was spliced into soybeans, and the new protein in the soybean would have caused allergic reactions in people who were allergic to Brazil nuts. (This was discovered before this soybean was commercialized.) Because biotechnology makes it possible to transplant genes from organisms that we don't eat into ones that we do, there is also a possibility for new, unforeseen allergic reactions.McGloughlin cites the Brazil nut-soybean as an example that the industry's own safety testing is adequately protecting consumers. "They caught it. To me, that shows the checks and balances are there," she said. The single most prevalent genetically modified food on the market is "Roundup ready" soybeans. These are soybeans that have been engineered not to die when they are doused with Roundup, a popular weed-killer sold by Monsanto. Biotech foes, logically, worry that farmers are using more herbicides on this crop, and those chemicals are making their way into our food.But McGloughlin says that the modified soybeans actually allow farmers to use a smaller amount of chemicals. "First of all, Roundup is the most benign of all herbicides," she said. "Second, farmers are going to use the minimum amount they need to grow anything. Now farmers could put more on it, but why would they? It would cost them more money."Certain varieties of corn and potatoes have been genetically modified to produce their own pesticide, called Bt. Although Bt is widely used in organic farming, little testing has been done about possible health effects when it is engineered directly into every cell of the corn and potato. A disputed study published in a British medical journal showed that potatoes engineered to produce a different kind of pesticide caused a thickening in the lining of rats' stomachs, suggesting a reaction to a toxin or irritant. Proponents of biotech say that the risks posed by GMOs are relatively minor when compared to risks posed by natural toxins and microbial contamination in foods."The toxins produced by fungi are a thousand times worse than anything manmade," McGloughlin said. "Sometimes people think that if it's natural, it's good. But some of the worst toxins in the whole world are natural. "There is a far greater chance of you getting E. coli from someone having taken a dump out in the lettuce field than any risk from genes we put in there. It's pretty gross to think of it, but that's the reality-you don't know what's in your food."Ignorance Is BlissIf any single entity is responsible for why we still don't really know very much about what we're eating here, it's the FDA.In 1992, the FDA adopted a policy towards biotech foods that said that they were no different than traditional foods and required no special regulation or testing. Its official policy is as follows: "FDA is not aware of information that would distinguish genetically engineered foods as a class from foods developed through other methods of plant breeding and, thus, the agency does not require that such foods be specially labeled to disclose the method of development."Just as with traditional foods, if scientists want to engineer a new and unknown additive-say an artificial sweetener-into a food, or if they want to add something that people might be allergic to, like a peanut gene, they need FDA approval. In all other cases, the FDA has no requirements. Instead, the agency has established an "informal consultation process" by which it "encourages" biotech companies to "voluntarily" submit their safety testing data.Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, is the lead attorney in a federal lawsuit against the FDA to try to force the agency to require safety testing and labelling of GMOs. He sums up the FDA's policy as follows:"If I am producing a Bt potato, I have zero legal responsibility to even talk to the FDA."Kimbrell argues that safety testing of GMOs should not be left up to the industry. "Our whole regulatory system is not based on an honor system of the corporations," he said. "It is the [industry's] burden to show these foods are safe, and they haven't done that. And the FDA, shamefully, has not made them do that."Carl Winter, a food toxicologist and director of the FoodSafe program, defends the FDA's regulatory process. He and McGloughlin agree that the agency's consultation process and the industry's own safeguards are working. Winter says he is sure enough of the safety of these foods that he is comfortable feeding them to his kids."I think consumers can trust that process as well as they can trust any process," Winter said. "I haven't seen indications thus far to lead me to believe that anyone's falsifying their data to get their product on the market. There are a lot of safeguards in the process. But no process is perfect."Not a Perfect SolutionAlthough labelling might at first seem like an obvious answer, it too has its problems and its critics. In Europe, where labelling has been the law since last year, it has not been a perfect solution. European food manufacturers have to label a food genetically modified if it contains more than 1 percent genetically modified ingredients. A food can only be labelled "GMO-free" if it contains less than 0.1 percent genetically modified ingredients. In England, even restaurants, pubs and caterers have to tell their customers when they're using genetically modified foods. But there has been lots of confusion, claims and counter-claims about what exactly constitutes "GMO-free" food, and some critics say the resulting label mayhem is worse than no labels at all.In response to Europe's labelling law, food processors have scrambled to try to get the GMOs out of their food, rather than have to label it. As a result, American farmers, who depend largely on the Europeans to buy their corn and soybeans, have taken a hit. The problem has become severe enough that Archer Daniels Midland, a huge commodity buyer, has encouraged its farmers to segregate genetically modified crops. Fearing a public relations disaster, Gerber, the largest baby food producer in the United States, announced in July that it would not use bioengineered ingredients in its baby food. It was an ironic move since Gerber is owned by Novartis, one of the world's major ag biotech companies."The farmers now are upset here because if they grow genetically engineered food crops they don't have a market for it," Rifkin said. "Many farmers are pulling away from it next year, and going back to conventional food. You're going to see a decrease in GMOs each year."There are also those who argue that labelling does not go far enough, that instead we should be calling for a moratorium on all commercialization of GMOs. To understand this argument, it is important to realize that food safety concerns are only one of the issues raised by biotech agriculture. To ecologists, the scariest aspect of GMOs is the threat they pose to the environment. Ecologists are worried that by tinkering with plant DNA, scientists will create "super weeds" that are resistant to herbicides and which will out-compete existing plants and proliferate out of control in the environment. They are concerned about "biological pollution" -- the leaking of bioengineered plants into the environment, and their unknown ecological effects. They are also worried that bugs will quickly become resistant to the bioengineered pesticides, and it will be harder and harder to control them."If you take a plant and modify it like that, you're going to change the way it interacts with the environment," said Aaron King, co-director of the Student Environmental Resource Center. "I think labelling is a great idea, but it's not enough. It's a reasonable first step."There are economic concerns as well: Organic farmers, in particular, are worried that labelling will put them out of business. Already they have to pay to get organic certification; now will they have to pay to have their crops tested for GMOs? There is also the concern that their crops will be cross-pollinated with genetically modified ones, and that they will lose their organic certification. "If a grower's product is inadvertently contaminated by a genetically modified crop, who's responsible for that grower's inability to market that crop as GMO-free?" said Mark Lipson, spokesman for the Organic Farming Research Foundation.Opponents of biotech also argue that, like chemical pesticides and herbicides, biotech foods favor an industrial approach to agriculture instead of a smaller scale, sustainable approach. "What's going on is that the genetics researchers do not understand ecology," said King. "They don't understand socio-economic impacts. All they understand is genetics -- they're very good at that. But the researchers -- no matter how gifted they may be -- do not understand the implications of their work."The Death of Biotech?On the other end of the spectrum are the biotech advocates, who argue that labelling is unnecessary, that it will cause biotech research to take an undeserved public relations hit, and that it will drive up food prices by forcing farmers to segregate genetically modified crops from non-genetically modified crops. A label should give a consumer information about the safety and content of the food, not the process that was used to make it, McGloughlin contends. If GMOs are labeled, she says, then all the pesticides used on the crop, as well as the machinery used to harvest it and the ways it is processed should also be labelled, and that would clearly be more information than the consumer needs. Yet science may lose out to public skepticism, she realizes. "Even though it has no scientific basis, you may, from the point of view of public opinion, have to go that way," McGloughlin said "But then it's going to end up like wallpaper because everything is going to say it, 'May contain genetically engineered products.' Every single thing out there is going to say it, so what's that going to tell you?"Biotech companies have joined forces and set aside tens of millions of dollars over the past few months to stage a massive public relations campaign to try to counter a European-style backlash here in the United States, according to a recent New York Times article.It's a campaign they might have been able to avoid if they had been smarter about strategy from the beginning. If the industry had continued along the lines of the Flavr Savr tomato and introduced a line of products that had direct, obvious benefits for the consumer right away then much of the backlash might have been avoided. Monsanto, in particular, received huge amounts of negative publicity for developing what was dubbed the "terminator gene," a gene that would render seeds produced by its plants infertile, forcing farmers to buy new seeds from the company every year. Facing declining profits and growing public outrage, Monsanto recently announced that it would not attempt to commercialize the technology.Although the industry has made lofty promises-that biotech food will feed the world's hungry, that nutrient-enriched, better tasting, healthier foods will do everything from fighting cancer to keeping you safe at night, most of what is on the market right now is of benefit only to industry. So far, if consumers have benefitted, it's only been in the most indirect way. Stan Dundon, who is coordinator of the Soul of Agriculture, a project that promotes sustainable agriculture, argues that consumers would be foolish to accept the risks of biotechnology when they are seeing no clear benefit."For a land grant university, or a federal regulatory agency, to demand we run these risks and not enable us to pick and choose whether we want to run these risks for no benefits, is about as immoral a thing as you can do," he said. "It's like someone selling you a car and saying, 'We can soup this car up so it will go a lot faster than you really need it to go, and we're going to charge you a lot of money for it, but there's a certain risk that the wheels are going to fall off.' Well, who would buy the car?"When we Americans find out what we are eating, will we be outraged and demand labelling and safety testing, like our European counterparts? Or will we shrug our shoulders and chalk it up as yet another invisible, inevitable risk of modern life? It remains to be seen."I actually think genetic foods are probably on their way to the deathbed," Rifkin said. "Because around the world, consumers don't want them; governments are staking out a position for moratoriums against them, and in the United States, as more information becomes available, more of the public doesn't want to buy the food. I just don't see light at the end of this tunnel for the biotech industry."

Joel Kovel Battling Nader for Green Party Presidential Nomination

Joel Kovel is a new entry on the national Green scene, running for president for the first time this year. But to certain sectors of academia and of left political activism, Kovel is widely known for his many writings analyzing the effects of capitalism on human relations, social development and even sprirituality.Formerly a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine, Kovel is currently a professor of social studies at Bard College in New York. Kovel ran in that state as a Green candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1998.He now appears on the ballot as an alternative to the only other Green presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, who, at press time, has not yet officially announced whether he is in fact running.]In the interview below, Kovel lays out his vision of the Green agenda, his differences with Nader, and why he sees socialism as a necessary component to Green Party politics and program.Ralph Brave: What would you say is the main thrust of your message as a Green Party candidate? What distinguishes you from Al Gore or Bill Bradley?Joel Kovel: Well, there is a very striking difference. I believe that the established two party system is hopeless and can't meet the needs of humanity and the earth. The reason for that is the ever expanding, ever destructive global reach of the capitalist system of which Al Gore and Bill Bradley are basically paid servants. So, it's that clear and that simple. I also have a rather complex and elaborate platform that has maany different planks and programs in it.RB: It sounds you believe there needs to be an alternative to capitalism?JK: Yes. And that's I guess the audacious thing to come forward with at this time. There are those who believe, like Margaret Thatcher, that there is no alternative. This is it, this is the way the world has to be. This is the only way history can unfold. And that's become an article of faith for people, an automatic assumption. And it's to unsettle that assumption, to breakdown its terms and to show that it has to be different or else we're really tremendously in trouble, that I'm in the running. And its basically in the form of an assumption which is an article of much ecological and Green thought that our society is as they say unsustainable, and cannot keep going in this direction, breaking down its own natural foundations without widespread havoc and much more to come.RB: So what's the alternative to capitalism?JK: I don't have any magic blueprints. I think its something that has to be worked out. It's something that requires, just a national raising of consciousness, international global raising of consciousness that will get people to begin thinking along these lines instead of just numbly accepting the status quo. But, what I call for is something called ecological socialism. In other words, I'm willing to raise the "S" word that nobody wants to use. You can call it cooperative commonwealth if you like, which is what many socialists called it over the last century. But, you have to get the fundamental point that its not about regulating the capitalist system, but its about basically altering it by changing the ownership and control of great institutions that now run our world.As we all know, and have been told innumerable times, what went under the name of socialism failed and cannot be the organizing principle of our society. I absolutely agree with that. What went on under the name of socialism was a huge disaster. However, that also was not socialism by any coherent definition of the term true socialism. What passed as socialism within the Soviet world and the Marxist Leninism world was basically an attempt to rebuild capitalism under conditions of scarcity and low development. And we need to rid ourselves of the notion that it was really socialism and start thinking about what socialism could really be.Here's where the term ecological comes in. I believe that if you place those two words together, you start thinking in terms of fundamental changes -- not just ownership of the means of production, which is part of a socialist society, but actually the way production is carried out, the way human relations are ordered, the way democracy becomes a much more fundamental principle in society.RB: I think people interested in developing an alternative would want to have a notion of what kind of model, even at a micro-level, Joel Kovel has in mind.JK: Well, first of all, the model is that there are many models of enlightened ecological production. Beginning with organic farms. The pathway towards a radically new production is fairly well laid out. I mean there's lots that has to be discovered, but we know that it involves decentralization of the unit of production. We know that it involves dealing in organic relationships rather than synthetic ones, and so on and so forth. We know also, that where and when these have been given a chance, to enlighten political action, they thrived. Organic farms always produce much better than non-organic farms, et cetera.RB: I'm wondering where the Green Party and Joel Kovel in terms of agricultural biotechnology?JK: My position is that we need a moratorium on the release of transgenic material into the environment. This is not to say that I am totally against technology. I know, some Greens are more fundamentally against then I am, but because I used to be a physician and I have scientific training, I just don't believe that we can turn away from technology. But, I do believe that we must stop the control of these technologies by the capitalist private sector who inevitably is going to abuse them, because it's a monster that can easily, easily get out of hand. And when it's produced for profit rather than the welfare of the earth, you have a ready-made situation for abuse.I'm also against the patenting of lifeforms. Pure outrage, that you should patent genes, that this most fundamental domain of nature should become the province of commodity capitalism. As for the moriatorum, my principle is just that it's not an absolute ban, but it's a stopping it in its track, so that we can have a really genuine dialogue on this, free from the control of the agribusiness and the capitalist formations of the world. So that we can really have an enlightened dialogue and approach using the very best of science and ecological thought and democratic institutions put together.RB: Most people, when they hear about the Green Party, assume that it's anti-technological, even anti-scientific. It sounds like your position is actually more complex than that.JK: Oh, much more. I appreciate the Luddite impulses, because I think that people try and defend their life space against the encroachment of destroying technology. But on the other hand, it's human nature to make tools. We're the tool-making animal, that's who we are. The question is how those tools are to be socially organized and constructed. Not just used, but the whole way in which the social relationships enter into the making of the tools and the whole history that enters into that. But, I absolutely am not for a kind of neo-primitivism. Besides that of my valued position, it is simply inconceivable that you could deal with the existing state of the world by pulling back from a great deal of the technological aspects of the world, like computers. While I do think that in ecologically socialist society, there has to be much more actual human hands entering the production of things, that's different from saying that you should destroy our machines and not think intelligently about technology.RB: Is your experience though that much of the Green Party constituency is made up of a neo-primitivism, back to the earth approach?JK: No. My experience of the Greens is of a very diverse group. Most Greens are people that concerned to defend their communities and public spaces from encroachment. Most Greens have a basically anti-capitalist point of view because they're always fighting a power plant or the tearing down of forests or whatever. All of which is very clear and obvious function of capital accumulation. Most Greens are people who are defending community values. Defending the values of localism, intact, small economic systems. Most Greens are basically from an anarchist tradition, of defending the integrity of democratic processes and spontaneous face to face interactions. That's really where they come from. I believe they are increasingly moving in a more anti-capitalist direction. I think the biggest limitation on the Greens is the Greens have a lot of work to do to overcome class differences, to overcome differences in ethnicity, racial distinctions and so on. They need to go a lot further in that direction. They need to build many more bridges to communities of color for instance. And many more bridges to the labor movement.RB: Many people don't believe that a Green government would be particularly good at producing the wealth that Greens want to redistribute.JK: Well, you know, it depends on what you mean by wealth. I would hope that a Green government would be very good at producing true values. I think the Green government, would not, should not, produce certain forms of what's called wealth. Sports utility vehicles, things like that, Barbie dolls. Not that Barbie dolls are bad in themselves, but in mass amounts are cultural junk.We have by any reasonable economic analysis now a tremendous problem with overproduction in our society. In fact, one of the hallmarks of capitalism is that its main virtue -- its only virtue -- is producing wealth for the sake of capitalism. So it, produces, produces, produces. And there is a constant flood of commodities and constant overproduction of everything. A sane society, whether you call it Green or Eco-socialist, would be free of that compulsion. It's that compulsion, that reckless growth compulsion, that really cancerous growth compulsion, that's causing the ecological crisis, that's making our society unsustainable. So, yes indeed, a Green society, a sane society, does not overproduce the wealth that fills Wal-Mart and strip malls and our highways.RB: I want to turn briefly to the existence of your name on the ballot and Ralph Nader's as Greens. Is there something that distinguishes you from Nader as a Green candidate?JK: Talking about Ralph Nader, you're not talking about Bill Bradley, Al Gore, but someone who's made very fundamental, heroic contributions to our society. And who's definitely on the side of the angels. I would ask voters to insist that Nader and I have one or a series of debates. Not so much to see "who is the better man," but to sharpen awareness of the fundamental issues. While I think what Ralph is doing is tremendously valuable, I would have people go further. I think that what Ralph is doing is based on the assumption that the capitalist system can be regulated. My assumption is that it can't be regulated and it has to be fundamentally changed. So, you'd have to say that Nader is what you would call a progressive populist. He believes that citizen movements can offset the power of corporate capital. I believe those movements are all necessary, but they're not sufficient. I believe you have to go beyond that to also think of a transformation of the system.RB: Now I hate to do this to you, but if you had a thirty second message to voters about why they should vote for you, what would that thirty second message say?JK: I'd say, "Look beneath the superficial signs of prosperity. Look at the deep contraptional problems that our society faces under its present state of organization. Look to the future, look to save the future for our children. Look to save the children of the future. And make a fundamental change in the way in which our society is organized."RB: How do you find the response to what sounds like a very conscious effort to reintroduce some version of socialism into the political debate?JK: Well, I certainly think that people are more responsive than they used to be. I don't think that I could really state as to how far that's going to go. I do believe, to borrow an old song title, that times are a-changing. I think that we're turning and not just American society, but the global situation is changing. And, in a very broad sense, that's why I'm running. I'm responsive to those flickers of hope.

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