Seven Days

How I Bought an AR-15 in a Five Guys Parking Lot One Day After The Orlando Massacre

(This report first appeared in SevenDaysVt.com.)

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Bernie Sanders’ Secret Sauce: The Vermont Socialist's Improbable Rise To Prominence

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is surging. In July, nearly 10,000 supporters gathered in Madison, Wis., to hear the 73-year-old socialist senator denounce the Koch brothers and corporate greed. Another 7,500 came to hear him in Portland, Maine. He fired up a crowd of 11,000 in Phoenix, Ariz.

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Is Thom Hartmann the Progressive Answer to Conservative Dominance of Talk-Radio?

Thom Hartmann now hosts one of the most successful talk-shows — of any political stripe — in the United States.

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Heart of Darthness

George Lucas didn't make me gay, but I think my mother blamed him when I came out to her nine years ago. One of the first things she said to me -- after telling me she still loved me -- was "I shouldn't have let you cut your hair so short as a child." I suspect she was also thinking, "I never should have taken you to see Star Wars."

I was 3 in 1978, when Mom took me to see the film we now know as Episode IV at a theater near our home in suburban Michigan. Pictures of me at that age prove that even then I was a tomboy. But after I saw Star Wars, I decided I wanted to be a boy -- specifically, the hero, Luke Skywalker.

This was not an uncommon experience among members of my generation. Lots of us -- both boys and girls -- identified with members of the movie's ensemble cast. In fact, on our first date, my first girlfriend admitted that she had once envisioned herself as Han Solo.

And let's face it. If I hadn't pretended to be Luke Skywalker all those years, I probably would have imagined myself as someone else -- Frodo Baggins, perhaps, or Huck Finn. But as it happened, I chose Luke, which is why this week I'll be seeing Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (the sixth and final installment in George Lucas' space saga). I don't expect it to be good -- Episodes I and II were truly terrible -- but low expectations are no match for the power of nostalgia.

Because I saw Star Wars at such a young age, I don't remember a time without it. I only vaguely recall the innocent, prelapsarian years before I learned that the evil Darth Vader was Luke's father. I'll never forget the moment I found out. I was at the table in my grandparents' house in North Carolina, talking with my older cousin, Jimmy. I must have been 5 or 6. Jimmy had already heard about Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

"Hey, Cathy," he said. "Guess what I heard? There's a sequel to Star Wars, and Darth Vader is Luke's father."

This went against everything I knew about the nature of good and evil. It was like learning some sinister secret about our honorable president, Ronald Reagan. I couldn't believe it, and didn't, until I saw the movie myself. Still, it took me years to accept, and during that time I struggled with much pent-up hostility. I now believe that's why I told my younger sister Karen that there was no Santa Claus when she was only 3.

Karen liked Star Wars, too. While most girls our age were playing house, we played "Star Wars." We would get together with neighborhood kids and act out scenes from the movies (or just make things up). I was always Luke. Beth from across the street was always Princess Leia. Brad from down the block was Han.

Unfortunately, this didn't leave many characters for my sister. At first she played R2-D2, but she didn't like that, because he's a robot who doesn't actually speak. In 1982, we improvised a solution -- Karen would play Gertie, Elliot's little sister from E.T.

Karen remembers things a little differently. She says I made her be Gertie because I didn't want her to have anything to do with "Star Wars."

"Why do you think I had to be R2-D2?" she asked me over the phone the other day. "You wouldn't even let me be the other one, C-3PO. At least he talks. Even when Beth wasn't there, you wouldn't let me be Leia."

Perhaps, I suggest, this was because if she had been Leia, it would have put us a little too close to Luke and Leia's creepy, semi-incestuous kiss in Episode V (before they realized they were brother and sister). Karen doesn't buy this. "No," she says. "You were just mean."

Whatever -- the point is that my sister was Gertie. And she must have liked it at least a little, because we played "Star Wars" for years. In fact, we played for so long that I started to get self-conscious about it. When I was 10 or 11, I beckoned Karen and Beth behind the garage. "I think we should stop playing 'Star Wars,'" I told them. I didn't want any of my other friends to find out about my imaginary life. Beth went to a different Catholic school, but I didn't want to take any chances.

Still, I wasn't quite ready to abandon my life as Luke. Once again, I improvised. "I guess it's OK if we keep playing," I clarified. "Just as long as we call it 'SW.'" What was I so eager to protect? What were we actually doing when we "played 'SW?'"

"We used to dance to the cantina music a lot," remembers Karen. We had a record player in the basement, and we'd play that song from the Star Wars soundtrack over and over. I also remember using the small stand of trees in our back yard as a spaceship, or a secret base. I would climb 20 or 30 feet up and spot the mall in the distance. "It's the Death Star!" I'd report to my squad.

Mostly, though, I pretended to be wounded. The four of us would often embark on missions. Before we reached our "enemies," we would imitate explosions. I would drop to the ground, sometimes pretending to fall in slow motion. I would lie on the basement floor and call for help. Beth/Leia and Brad/Han would do this, too; Karen/Gertie somehow always emerged unscathed.

"Gertie," I would moan, as if I were drifting in and out of consciousness. "Go get ... General Rieekan. Tell him ... I've got a broken leg."

Not to be outdone, Beth/Leia would instruct Karen/Gertie to help her first. "I have a broken neck," she'd whine.

"Gertie! Gertie!" I'd call out, as if I had been jolted awake by blinding pain. "I've been shot." Then I'd slump over, allowing a trickle of spit to dribble down my chin as if it were blood.

Karen/Gertie would scurry around the basement, yelling for the general. Brad/Han would usually just lie there whimpering; he was clumsy, and often hurt himself when he fell to the ground.

When I ask my sister if she remembers us ever actually fighting anyone, she says no. "We didn't have enough people to play the bad guys," she points out. That changed when I was 12 -- Brad got a new stepbrother, and we made him Darth Vader. He was perfect for the part, but we stopped letting him play when he made a rope noose and suggested we hang my dog in it.

We were more or less done playing by then, anyway. I don't remember the last round, but Karen insists she had sworn off "SW" by the time she was in fifth grade (I would have been 12 or 13).

But, just as not going to Mass hasn't stopped me from collecting glow-in-the-dark rosaries, ceasing to pretend I'm Luke hasn't stopped me from buying a ticket to a first-day showing of Episode III. Despite its many faults -- hackneyed script, crass commercialism, Jar Jar Binks -- there's still something compelling about George Lucas' saga of
redemption.

Maybe that's because, deep down, we all just want to be saved. Or maybe he's just a damn good marketer.

Global Warning

Social critic James Howard Kunstler has railed for years against the twin evils of bad urban design and suburban sprawl. Based in Saratoga Springs, the author of The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere warns that our beloved cars -- and the subdivided landscape they drive us to -- are leading American culture down a four-lane highway to destruction.

Kunstler's arguments have taken on new urgency in light of what scientists now agree is an impending, and permanent, global energy crisis. His new book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century (Atlantic Monthly Press, due out in May), imagines life -- and jobs, housing, architecture and transportation -- without access to cheap oil. An excerpt appears in a recent issue of Rolling Stone.

Kunstler got a rock-star reception last week at Middlebury College, where he entertained a standing-room-only audience with provocative predications about where our unbridled consumption is likely to land us. An eloquent, funny speaker who is not afraid to use the f-word, Kunstler agreed to a follow-up email interview with Seven Days.

Paula Routly: You've long criticized the housing and transportation policies that drove people from the cities to suburbia after World War II. Now it turns out "Levittown" is not only ugly and soul-killing, but unsustainable. Explain your vision of the "Long Emergency."

James Howard Kunstler: We poured our national wealth into the construction of a living arrangement that has no future -- and the future is now here. The infrastructure of suburbia can be described as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. It was deficient and problematic as a human habitat even apart from the question of its sustainability. The way we live in America represents a tragic set of collective and individual choices we made at a particular point in history, the mid-to-late 20th century, when circumstances seemed to suggest there were no limits to our quest for comfort, convenience and leisure. These things turned out to be a poor basis for a value system and for an economy.

So life without oil equals the apocalypse?

Your word, not mine. I rather resent being labeled "apocalyptic." It demonstrates how poorly even journalists understand what we face, which is an epochal discontinuity in the conditions of daily life, not the end of the world. In fact, we don't even face a life without oil, at least not imminently. We face a life without cheap oil, which is a big difference. Specifically, we are heading into a period of social, political and economic turbulence, which will probably include a lot of hardship. That's not the end of the world. That's something that the human race has been through many times before. For instance, the Europeans of 1913 would never have conceived the degree of destruction and vicissitude visited upon their societies by two 20th-century world wars. We're equally blind and clueless about what we are facing.

Since the U.S. reached its peak oil production in 1970, what's happened in terms of geoeconomic power?

The U.S. controlled the oil industry and the markets from the late 1800s until 1970 because we could always pump more and goose up the global supply, moderating prices. We were also the world's leading consumers of oil, so we wanted low prices. After 1970, when U.S. production peaked, other people -- namely OPEC -- enjoyed the position as "swing producers." They controlled prices and markets, not us. They could always pump more, but we couldn't, because our total production was decreasing. The 1970s were therefore very turbulent economically and the U.S. suffered a lot. "Stagflation." Twenty-percent interest rates! High unemployment.

In the 1980s the world's last great oil discoveries, the North Sea and Alaska's North Slope, came into production softening oil prices. These substantial non-OPEC sources tended to take pricing power away from OPEC. The result was a temporary glut and a decade and a half of still-cheap oil. I regard that period as the final blow-off of the cheap-oil era.

Now, there is reason to believe that the OPEC countries, including Saudi Arabia, may have peaked much earlier than expected, and nobody seems to have pricing control anymore -- no country can open up the valves and increase the supply enough to goose down world prices. Also, the North Sea and Alaska bonanzas are now officially over. Both areas are technically in depletion. In the years 2003 and 2004, there were no significant discoveries of any new oil.

Scientists differ in opinion not on whether global oil production will peak and then fall, but when. Can you talk about this?

The difference of opinion has become nearly insignificant. Kenneth Deffeyes, the Princeton professor and former major oil company geologist, says 2005. Colin Campbell, who was chief geologist (now retired) for Shell, and the French company Total-Fina-Elf, says 2007. Some other guys say 2010. What matters is that the complex systems we depend upon -- especially world finance and the infrastructures of relative peace between nations -- will wobble in anticipation of the peak, and once that happens we're in deep shit.

Did we set up a "police station" in Iraq to put off or delay the inevitable?

That's a fair statement. Our primary mission in Iraq has been to stabilize the region of the world where most of the remaining oil reserves exist. How long this might be possible is hard to say. Secondarily our mission was to moderate the behavior of Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The perceived benefit in all of this was to be able to continue to enjoy a reliable stream of oil imports -- from people who don't like us very much.

I hasten to add that we did not go there to "steal" the oil, as some people imply, but to simply continue to obtain it at market price. In any case, we won't be able to occupy unfriendly nations indefinitely, nor will supplies of Middle East oil last indefinitely. The level of violence will probably rise and fall and rise again. There is a tremendous capacity for political mischief in that part of the world. We may exhaust and bankrupt ourselves engaging with it. The inevitable part of this is that, sooner or later, we will have to come to grips with our extreme dependency on imported oil and the way we live in America.

Even the U.S. Department of Energy has released a report saying that "peak oil" is for real. So why doesn't the government support more initiatives for lessening dependence on fossil fuels?

This is hard for anyone to understand. I have personally not been a Bush-basher myself -- though I didn't vote for the sonofabitch. I tend to hold the American public as being complicit in the cluelessness that afflicts our society regarding the oil and gas issues and how they relate to our way of life. The dirty secret of the American economy for the last two decades is that it is all about the creation of suburban sprawl and accessorizing, furnishing and servicing it.

The public claims that this is what they want: the easy motoring life of the drive-in utopia. They also make a living off it. Subtract that and our economy is about little else besides medicine and hair-cutting. Consequently, our car dependency and oil addiction is a kind of economic racket, a self-reinforcing set of behaviors and habits that we dare not attempt to change -- because if we do, there will be no American economy.

Now, given all that it is still hard not to view the Bush leadership as extremely irresponsible or craven. There is no doubt that Bush and company understand the peak-oil issue and its implications for our economy and have chosen to not set the tone of a coherent national discussion about how we live. They have acted as enablers to a society that has tremendously self-destructive addictive habits. My own sense is that Bush and the Republican Party will be deeply discredited by their failure to confront the truth of our predicament until it was way too late. Unfortunately, the Democratic opposition has been, if anything, equally irresponsible and clueless. John Kerry said not a damn thing to really challenge the status quo.

The Germans and Brits are paying $5.50 a gallon and their societies are not collapsing. If they can handle $6 gas, why can't we?

The Europeans have very different ways of life and standards of living. They have cars but are not car-dependent, certainly not to the degree we are. They did not destroy their towns and cities. We did. They did not destroy their public transit. We did. They did not destroy local agriculture or the value-added activities associated with it. We did. If Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia got bumped off by a Wahabi maniac tomorrow and the West was put under a new oil embargo, the Europeans would still be able to get around. We would not.

You've been fairly pessimistic about "alternative" or "renewable" sources of energy, too. Is that because they're unfeasible, or that we can't get enough quickly enough?

I have been critical of these things. But mainly because the thinking about them has been so squishy and dumb. You've got Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute promoting what he calls a "hyper-car" for years and years, a car that gets super-great mileage -- say, 100 miles per gallon. Well, guess what the chief consequence of that stupid idea is: It promotes the belief that we can continue indefinitely being a car-dependant nation. Plus, it completely overlooks the tremendous damage that suburbia has done to our collective social lives, including the destruction of the public realm per se.

Mr. Lovins would have spent his time and money much more usefully on something like walkable communities, or being part of the New Urbanism movement. As a general rule, no combination of alt energy or systems to run it will allow us to continue running the U.S. as we have been running it. Virtually all of the bio-fuel schemes require more energy going in than they end up putting out. Hydrogen is essentially a hoax as it has been proposed. I believe the truth is that whatever so-called "renewables" we end up using will be at the extremely small, local scale -- perhaps the neighborhood or even household scale where solar is concerned.

In your remarks at Middlebury you predicted Bush won't finish out his second term because of the "Long Emergency" that's about to begin. Were you joking?

I refer you to my answer a few questions back. I believe that Bush and company will prove to have been so stupendously irresponsible in failing to prepare the public for the hardships we face, that it might be considered an impeachable offense. Yeah, I know Cheney is lurking in the background. He can be impeached too, and so can that fat, useless prick Dennis Hastert [Speaker of the House, R-IL].

In your book you talk about how declining oil reserves will change everything about how we live. What's the first crisis we'll see -- that is, other than oil-driven wars?

The oil markets will wobble well before oil becomes scarce. We're already seeing much more volatility in the price. The international financial markets will also prove to be extremely sensitive to the perception that all future industrial growth is at risk without expanding supply of oil and natural gas. The value of a currency -- say, the dollar -- depends on what people think the prospects are of the country that stands behind it.

People around the world will look at our futureless, suburban-sprawl way of life and the economy that goes with it, and they may conclude that America's prospects are not so hot. When that happens, the value of the dollar will tank. That will, of course, have a severe affect on the housing market and the sprawl-building industry. The conclusion is pretty self-evident, I think.

The domino effect of changes in our way of life is staggering to think about. One thing comes to mind is how our relatively recent reliance on computers and the internet will be affected. Despite the advent of wireless technologies, most of us still depend on electricity for access. Any thoughts on this?

We have reason to believe that the electric grid is headed for trouble. Our natural-gas supply situation is actually quite a bit more ominous and immediate than even the oil situation, and a lot of our electricity is made with natural gas. Suffice it to say that the internet is only as good as the electric grid that supports it.

What would cities look like under an oil-crisis scenario?

We'll discover that our largest industrial cities will not work very well in an energy-scarce economy. New York and Chicago pose particular problems because they are so overburdened with skyscrapers, a building type that will soon be obsolete. As a general rule, our industrial cities have assumed a scale that is just unsustainable, and I believe will see a period of painful contraction. Many of these cities are already well advanced in that process: Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, et cetera -- the list is very long.

Los Angeles has special problems insofar as it is composed mainly of suburban fabric. The giant suburban metroplexes will also generally enter a state of failure. Phoenix and Las Vegas will be faced by additional problems with their water supply. Both will be substantially depopulated, in my opinion. In Las Vegas, the excitement will be over. The action in America will be in the smaller towns that are embedded in a surrounding countryside where agriculture is viable.

So all cash-strapped farmers and land owners should just try to hang on a little longer ...

We can predict that life is going to become a lot more local, and that food production is going to occupy much more of the center of our economy. What we don't know is what kind of new social relations will form around land ownership. The Long Emergency, as I call this period ahead, will produce a lot of economic losers, people whose vocations are lost forever. Many of them will eventually find a place in food production, but exactly how that will shake out is a very interesting question. Will they sell their allegiance for food or physical security? That implies a kind of neo-feudalism. Will those who have land be subject to confiscations or assaults? During the disorders that accompanied the Black Plague in the 1300s, the countryside of Europe was beset by banditry. Will that happen in America? Hard to say.

What do these coming changes imply for education and employment? Where are the jobs going to be?

I doubt that our centralized schools with their yellow bus fleets will remain in operation many years from now. I imagine that whatever education there is will go not much beyond the equivalent of the eighth grade. I tend to think that many colleges will simply close up, especially the land-grant diploma mills. College, if it continues to exist at all, will once again be an elite activity, not a consumer activity.

As I said above, the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers. Many types of jobs will cease to exist: public relations executive, marketing directors, et cetera. I think work will be very hands-on, and a lot of it will revolve around food production. We will, of course, have to completely reorganize our trade infrastructures, since Wal-Mart and its imitators will not survive the end of the cheap-oil era. The consumerist frenzy will be over. We will have far fewer things to buy.

You've envisioned the human reaction to the energy crisis will be a sociological clusterfuck. What can individuals do to prepare for the coming changes? Find a friend, a nice little spread out in the Green Mountains, a well, a windmill, some solar panels and the right seeds?

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to find a community proximate to viable agriculture -- namely, a town -- and to become a useful member of it. To prepare to be a good neighbor. Not everybody will have the skill or the strength to work in agriculture, and we will certainly need a wide variety of other things to be done. The rural idyll that many people entertain is a highly sentimental one, I'm sorry to say, based on our experience of recent years with cheap oil, easy automobile loans and plenty of electricity. There will be a much clearer distinction between rural and civic lives. In the Long Emergency, those who chose country living had better be prepared to lead rural lives.

Can you seriously foresee a path through the long emergency that will not involve violent social chaos? Will the suburbs be the new inner-city war zones?

I don't like the word chaos because it might tend to exaggerate what we actually face, which, in my opinion, is more properly described as turbulence, disorder, discontinuity and hardship. These things are bad enough, obviously, but they do not necessarily imply chaos and anarchy. I do believe that some places will be worse than other places. I think, for instance, that the Sunbelt will suffer in direct proportion to the degree that it prospered and benefited from the cheap-oil blowout of the past several decades.

Personally, I am a fairly cheerful person. The final question for anybody, whatever social and economic circumstances they find themselves in, is this: Am I leading a purposeful existence? I will be impertinent enough at this point to conclude by wishing us all good luck. We're going to need it.

Radio Activist

It's the top of the hour in a house overlooking downtown Montpelier, and the host of the nationally syndicated "Thom Hartmann Show" is waiting for a cue indicating he is back on the air. "Calling for a rapid and radical return to the old values that made America great," says an announcer's voice, "the values of democracy upon which this country was founded, here's Thom Hartmann."

The 2:00 p.m. introduction sounds generically patriotic enough to open a conservative talk-radio show. But Hartmann's liberal tendencies show through when he begins to rail against the Bush administration's latest assault on the Bill of Rights. A recent guest on the program, Brett Bursey, has just been convicted by a federal court of "threatening the president." His crime? Standing in the crowd at a pro-Bush rally in Columbia, South Carolina, with a sign that read, "No war for oil."

"He was arrested solely -- the police officer told him -- for the contents of his sign. He wouldn't go to the designated 'free speech zone,'" Hartmann tells his listeners from his small home studio, where a cat snoozes contently at his feet. "What happened to the First Amendment and the right of the people to peaceably assemble to petition their government for a redress of grievances? What's happening to America?"

Next, Hartmann takes a phone call that is fed to him from a remote studio in Detroit. "Kyle," a college-aged listener in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is concerned that Ralph Nader's run for the presidency will once again split the progressive vote and hand Bush the election. Hartmann's assessment? Nader won't be a factor come November. Still, he is angered at Nader's apparent indifference to how his campaign disenfranchises liberal voters and ultimately harms the democratic process.

"Nader says that no one in Europe would dare tell a third-party candidate that he can't run. Well, that's because in Europe, a third party doesn't harm the other party that it is most closely aligned with," Hartmann says. "How can Ralph Nader be so ignorant of politics and history?" He then launches into an impromptu lesson about European-style proportional representation, deftly spouting names, dates and other historical facts without once referring to notes or reference books.

Hartmann's encyclopedic intellect is impressive, though he doesn't seem to notice the symbolic significance of his last caller's location: Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is the hometown of conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh. It has been less than a year since Hartmann's three-hour daily program went national, but already the 53-year-old Vermonter has struck at the heart of conservative America. Since April 2003, "The Thom Hartmann Show" has been picked up by 23 stations from coast to coast, in markets as liberal as San Francisco and as conservative as Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the latter, "The Thom Hartmann Show" now airs opposite "The Rush Limbaugh Show" on a station owned by the media giant Clear Channel radio network.

Hartmann is by no means the first progressive to try to reclaim the airwaves from Limbaugh and the other angry conservatives of his ilk who have dominated political talk radio for more than a decade. Actually, his show is part of a growing movement to broaden the spectrum of on-the-air political discourse. That trend includes nationally syndicated programs like the Vermont-based "Bernie Sanders Show," Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!" and a new liberal radio network expected to launch soon called Air America Radio, which will feature progressive hosts such as Al Franken and Janeane Garafalo.

Haven't heard "The Thom Hartmann Show" yet? No wonder, since the program, which is billed as "uncommon sense from the radical middle," is still so new it hasn't even been picked up in its home state yet. That said, "The Thom Hartmann Show" actually got its start about a year ago with a brief stint on TALK 1070, a small, daytime-only AM station with a studio in St. Albans.

But Hartmann's visibility in Vermont is bound to improve. This week, the network that has been airing his program for the last year -- the UAW union-bankrolled " America Radio Network" in Detroit -- disbanded. So Hartmann, an aggressive entrepreneur and self-promoter, launched his own company to self-syndicate the show. Already, it has been picked up by the Sirius Satellite Radio system, and is being beamed to stations throughout North America. "The Thom Hartmann Show" also attracts about 10,000 listeners each month in more than 100 countries via the World Wide Web.

As Hartmann prepares for the final half-hour of his show during another commercial break, his wife and producer, Louise, shows me around their home, a beautiful gingerbread cottage built in 1850 for Vermont painter Thomas Waterman Wood. The couple moved to Vermont about four years ago from Atlanta to escape the smog and crime and live in northern New England, which they love. Through the lead-paned windows in the dining room, Hartmann's car can be seen parked in the driveway. It's a Toyota Prius hybrid, with bumper stickers that read, "Abolish Corporate Personhood" and "Eat My Voltage."

Hartmann is quite a high-voltage personality himself. A bookshelf in the dining room is filled with many of the books he has written or contributed to, including a few that have been translated into German and Japanese. This year alone, he is releasing three new titles. In all, Hartmann is a best-selling author of at least 18 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including several on attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Yes, he's got that challenge, but it, too, has worked to his advantage.

"Oh, there's no doubt about it. I am easily bored," Hartmann confesses. "When you have someone who is relatively unwounded by the system, has any modicum of intellect and ADHD, you have someone who's going to have a very interesting life. When you have someone who is badly wounded by the system or is intellectually challenged and has ADHD, you have someone who is going to wind up in prison."

Hartmann's website, www.thomhartmann.com, includes an exhaustive, three-page biography posted under the heading, "The Gift of ADHD." It's an apropos title, considering that Hartmann's hyperactive career is quite literally all over the map. In addition to the 10 years he spent working in radio and television broadcasting during the 1960s and '70s, Hartmann is also a former editor, licensed pilot, private detective, acupuncturist, electronics technician and chartered herbalist. He holds a Ph.D. in homeopathic medicine. He has lectured to hundreds of thousands of people on five continents. And he has launched seven successful businesses, including a travel agency that was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It's the kind of resume that could make Tony Robbins feel like a slacker.

Hartmann is also a licensed psychotherapist. In 1978, he and his wife founded the New England Salem Children's Village, a 132-acre residential treatment facility in New Hampshire for abused and severely disturbed children. Hartmann still serves as president of the board. He has helped the International Salem program set up similar treatment facilities in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.

During his radio program, Hartmann often discusses the failures of globalization and how they are reflected in the slums of Mexico City, Calcutta and Bangladesh. No armchair warrior, he speaks from years of firsthand experience living abroad. Since 1978, Hartmann has been a regular volunteer with the International Salem program, which has taken him to remote regions of the world. In 1980, he entered a war zone in Uganda following the ouster of dictator Idi Amin and negotiated with the provisional government for land to build a hospital and refugee center. The facility is still in operation and treats more than 500 patients a day. "That's kind of my tithing," says Hartmann, who always pays his own way on international missions. "Actually, it's more fun than putting money in the collection plate at church."

At 3:00 p.m., Hartmann signs off his broadcast for the day and joins us at the dining room table. The Michigan native is tall and lanky, with angular features, a neatly trimmed beard and an intense gaze. Dressed in a beige cardigan sweater, corduroys and rimless glasses, he exudes a polite, professorial air. He speaks in the practiced and well-modulated voice of a broadcast veteran -- though by this time of the day it also reveals his fatigue.

Considering Hartmann's conservative, midwestern upbringing, it's ironic that he would eventually become an advocate for the rapid return to liberal values. He grew up in a working-class household in Lansing, Michigan, where his father, a staunch Republican, worked as a bookkeeper in a machine shop. As a youngster, he shared his father's right-wing point of view.

"In 1964, I was 13 years old and read John Stormer's None Dare Call It Treason, and I knew the communists were coming to get us and I had to do something about it," he recalls. As a result, in September and October of 1964, Hartmann was going door to door in his hometown handing out campaign literature for Barry Goldwater. Three years later, however, he was squaring off with police in East Lansing during frequent anti-war protests. At age 17, he met a fellow peace activist, Michigan's then-assistant attorney general's 15-year-old daughter, whom he later married. He and Louise have been together ever since and have three grown children.

"I went from the extreme right to the extreme left in a couple of years due to the Vietnam War," Hartmann recalls. "I've experienced the whole spectrum, both practically and philosophically." And that experience of traversing the political divide eventually helped him forge an identity he now calls "the radical middle." As he explains it, if you asked most people to identify where they stand on certain issues that are considered "liberal" in the true sense of the word -- protecting the environment, guaranteeing workers the right to organize, equal access to universal health care, free public education through college, and so on -- Hartmann asserts that 70 to 90 percent of all Americans would agree that these are desirable goals.

"So I refer to my program as 'uncommon sense from the radical middle' because I think that I do speak for most Americans, even those who think they are conservatives or whatever other label they apply to themselves," Hartmann says. "And we need immediate change -- that's the definition of 'radical' -- because this country has been hijacked by a bunch of extremists who aren't even true to traditional conservative thinking."

Apparently, a growing number of Americans who agree with him are tuning in to hear his point of view. Phil Tower is operations manager and program director of WTKG, a 1000-watt AM station in Grand Rapids that has been carrying "The Thom Hartmann Show" since the end of December.

"I've been very pleased with Thom's show because he's very articulate," Tower reports. "Thom is really a breath of fresh air and I'm really enjoying the feedback we're getting from people who thought all along that talk radio was only going to be right-wing and nothing else."

As Towers points out, Grand Rapids seems like an unlikely market for Hartmann to succeed in. The mostly middle- and upper-middle-class city is predominantly white, conservative and Republican. In fact, it's home to the national headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. Likewise, WTKG is owned by Clear Channel Radio, which also owns WOOD, another AM talk-radio station in town. The two stations are now airing Hartmann and Limbaugh opposite one another starting at noon each day.

Tower says he's been surprised by all the positive feedback he's received from listeners. "I've heard from some diehard Rush Limbaugh fans who have called and said, 'Hey, it's nice having this guy on the air, even though I think he's full of crap,'" Tower says. "We thought there'd be more of an outcry, but I think people are realizing that too much on one side of the spectrum is not healthy. It's just boring."

Although Tower won't have definitive ratings for Hartmann's program until mid-March, he is optimistic about its long-term success with listeners and advertisers alike. And while he doesn't expect Hartmann to seriously threaten Limbaugh's market share in Grand Rapids, "We're just trying to have it on as a different voice, recognizing that there are enough liberals in this town," he says, "although a lot of them are hiding behind their cars and underneath their office desks."

Some critics might accuse Hartmann of a conflict of interest for his occasional rants against media consolidation and corporate dominance of the airwaves, especially when his own program now airs on a Clear Channel station. But Hartmann doesn't see a problem there.

"I think that Clear Channel's interest ultimately is making money. And if they can make money by having a guy on talking about how bad corporations are, they're going to laugh all the way to the bank," Hartmann says. "It may be politically wise of me to moderate my raging against large media corporations, but I haven't. And I don't plan to."

Of course, Hartmann isn't simply offering up a progressive version of Limbaugh, full of piss and vinegar and theatrical displays of righteous indignation. If he were, it's unlikely he would have succeeded in places like Grand Rapids. Which isn't to suggest that Hartmann doesn't occasionally get irate on the air. "The trick is to do it appropriately and around real issues at real times," he says. "Otherwise, it comes across as gratuitous. You can't just say, 'I'm going to be angry today.'"

Likewise, Hartmann doesn't go in for personal attacks on the president or his family, the way Limbaugh often did with the Clintons. He occasionally airs a juicy sound bite or two by the president -- on the day of my visit, Bush is heard saying, "When we're talking about war, we're really talking about peace." But Hartmann prefers to hammer the administration with the facts.

"It's one thing to say the president's policies are harming somebody. It's another thing to say the president is a fool," Hartmann says. "I don't think he is a fool. But even if I did, it doesn't help me or my cause to say so. Anyway, I think he's far more dangerous than a fool."

Hartmann is also willing to discuss religion on the air, which may make him more likely than other progressive talk-show hosts to make inroads with more conservative or middle-of-the-road listeners: He identifies himself as a Christian. In fact, Hartmann is able to quote Scripture about as easily as he can quote The Federalist Papers.

"If you mean someone who was born and raised in that tradition and thinks Jesus said some pretty important things, that we ought to conduct ourselves consistent with his teachings, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25, then yeah, I'm a Christian and proud of it," Hartmann says. In 1998, Hartmann was granted a private audience with Pope John Paul II. But he also "took refuge" from the Dalai Lama -- the rough equivalent of a Baptism. "So I guess I'm a Buddhist, too."

Hartmann says it's a travesty that Jerry Falwell has become Christianity's de facto commentator on TV news networks like FOX and CNN. "Jerry Falwell doesn't represent Christians," Hartmann notes. "He represents a very small fringe cult within Christianity."

How is the future shaping up for Hartmann? Besides the upcoming release of his new book, Return of Democracy, which is being released by Random House on July 4, Hartmann is busy lining up new affiliates to pay for the year of satellite time to which he is already committed. As for getting his show picked up in Vermont, he's hoping that a major advertiser will come on board who can convince a local station that he's worth the investment.

"I think Thom is one of the most important voices in talk radio today," says Ken Squier, owner of WDEV in Waterbury, "because he's a fellow who has run corporations and yet he is a critic of how they are abusing their power." Squier, who is also a personal friend of Hartmann's, adds that he has spoken to Hartmann about carrying his program, but needs to figure out how it would fit into the station's current schedule, which already features left-leaning shows hosted by Sanders and former Progressive gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina.

Hartmann would probably be an easy sell in Vermont. When he made a passing reference on his program to a pesticide-free wine he buys from the Organic Wine Company in San Rafael, California, the owner called him the next day to sign up as a sponsor. Three weeks after the ads started to run, she called back and asked if they could put the commercials on hold for a while. It seems the small, family-owned winery was inundated with orders and couldn't handle the volume.

As for the possibility of being carried on a public radio station, Hartmann says that a few stations out West have considered it. The problem is that his show is a commercial product, with advertising breaks formatted into the show. Moreover, public stations get their national feed from NPR's satellite, which would require Hartmann to buy additional time, an expense he's not prepared to absorb just yet.

He and Louise wake up every morning between 5 and 6 a.m. to prepare for the weekday show, which starts at noon, and they rarely finish their workday before 9 or 10 p.m. They've kept up a frenetic work pace for seven days a week since last April; he admits this has been one of the busiest times of their lives.

Beginning this week, the Hartmanns are producing the entire show right out of their home. While Thom operates the mixing board, Louise screens the phone calls that come in from all across North America. "Two of us are replacing what 10 people and $4 million worth of equipment used to do," Hartmann says. "It'll be interesting." But not impossible, especially for a man who seems able to do it all.

Thom Hartmann will moderate a panel discussion following a screening of Amy Goodman's film, Independent Media in the Time of War, March 16, at 7:30 p.m., at the Eclipse Theater in Waitsfield, VT. He will speak about "Integrity in the Voting Process" at the Round Barn in Waitsfield, April 8 at 7 p.m.

Single White Female

When I was much younger, I had a vision of my adult self as married, with a home and family life. In my twenties, I got a husband, house, dogs, gardens, furniture, good jobs, a decent car. By the time I was 31, I also got a divorce.

I believed in marriage, and was stunned and saddened to find myself contributing to the crumbling of a nuclear family. Being suddenly single felt like I'd caught a strange illness. I received all kinds of solicited and unsolicited advice and remedies: introductions, blind dates, suggestions for personal ads, theories on how I got into this situation, why it was so persistent and when I could expect it to end. I was also surprised to find how many "friends" avoided me after the divorce, as if whatever I had might be contagious.

I've now been single for as long as I was married. Over the last six years, I've been joined in my untethered status by quite a few friends and acquaintances. Many of these -- including my ex -- have quickly coupled up again. But not me. I remember the pain and confusion of going to bed and waking up alone. I discovered the piercing ache of finding myself still alone. However, as much as I've loved the idea of being part of a couple, the reality represented by the marriages I've seen and the men I've dated has been neither seductive nor appealing enough for me to forego the freedom, independence and power that I've found being single.

So why, then, do I still feel that being unattached is a kind of psychic virus that makes people both wary of and worried for me?

I realize that concern and attempts to remedy the unsightly blemish of my solo status may be just the good-natured desire to make sure I am loved and cared for. But it's hard not to conclude that people also want you to get "well" so they won't get "infected." And I have to wonder why the fretting is so much more intense over women than men.

Solitary men are seen as romantic and independent; solitary women as home-wreckers or spinsters. Lone wolves are always male. Lone females are unwanted, suspect or must fend off, Diana-like, overheated suitors convinced of the restorative powers of their attentions. If a woman says, "No thanks," she's dubbed a prude, castrating bitch or lesbian. A man, self-controlled and mature. If she says, "Sure, but just for fun," the name-calling gets worse. For men, it's high fives all around.

All single women I know have repeatedly heard and even said to ourselves: "You're so (insert list of positive adjectives here.) I just don't understand why someone hasn't scooped you up!" We wonder what hidden flaw lurks within us, keeping partnership at bay. But being single is no more a sure marker of some character failing than being married is a guarantee of emotional health. In fact, one could make the argument that the inverse is true -- that you'd have to be nuts to think you could join lives and remain in relative tranquility and happiness with one person for more than seven seconds, much less 20, 50 or more years.

There's also the implication that whatever wonderful qualities one has are somehow squandered in solitude, a single woman remains unfulfilled if she's not giving herself to a man and procreating. I've heard many stories of indelicate post-divorce questioning along the lines of "Well, you did work a lot, didn't you?" Um, yeah, and so did he. "Do you think this would've happened if you hadn't gotten so involved in your own activities?" Right, if I'd been by his side around the clock, he might not have drunk too much, cheated on me, been a workaholic, or whatever other failing broke up the marriage.

It still seems that women are judged, and judge themselves, primarily by how they relate to others, and men by how much they accomplish. Most women I know expect themselves to be excellent mothers, wives, employees, housekeepers, schedule coordinators, lovers, cooks, daughters, sisters and in-laws. Bookstores are jammed with tomes proffering advice and counsel, almost solely to women, on how to be better at all these things.

Classes, television programs and magazines are also devoted to assessing and improving how women are doing in doing for others. Singer Shawn Colvin, in spite of her success, still wails, "I'm nobody's wife, I've given nobody life, and I appear to be nobody's daughter." It's hard to imagine a man singing an equivalent ballad.

The men I know ask less of relationships and less of themselves in relationships. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. Although it may help explain why men tend to spend less time between relationships, and why we see so many fortysomething men with twentysomething women. I think it's healthy to view relationships as primarily companionship, a bonus part of the day, not an external affirmation of a person's emotional worth and well-being.

Of the couples I know, it's often relatively easy to get the husband out for a mountain bike ride or snowboarding. The wives are all swamped with their long lists of "To Dos" and "To Do Better." Exercise, creative pursuits, a quiet, solitary walk, a long soak in a warm tub are at the bottom of the list, somewhere after "get kids through college." No wonder women are statistically less satisfied with their marriages than men. One relationship can't possibly re-fuel a tank that's constantly being driven dry.

Most of the men I've dated would describe me with positive adjectives similar to those used by friends. But they'd add words like "independent," "intense," "strong," "challenging," "self-contained." The first list is given as a compliment; the latter, a complaint. And yet these descriptives, if applied to a man, are considered desirable, not cautionary. One guy summarized both lists and my love of martial arts with the remark, "Well, you are sort of a James Bond babe." Let me be clear that this was said by way of explanation, not flattery.

Why is it that the female secret agent, no matter how skilled, ends up rescued by Bond, both literally and sexually? Why does beautiful, smart, accomplished Helen Hunt chase after the cad Mel Gibson, even though he's lied to and manipulated her? Why are men in their fifties credible romantic partners for women in their twenties, when the inverse is considered absurd? Why is suicide the only option for Thelma and Louise? Why does the audience give a collective sigh of relief when we see the solitary heroine finally enveloped in the hero's big, strong arms?

We are uncomfortable with the idea of a woman alone. Men see her as something to be conquered, and women as a potential threat. If I'm eating alone at a restaurant with a book for company, some men seem to think I'm really there in hopes of chatting with them. I know married men who think their wedding rings are all that's keeping me from inviting them upstairs.

Perhaps some of this comes from our cultural compulsion to stamp loved ones with a name, mark or totem that tells the rest of the world they are "mine, mine, mine." Relationships are no less rich or rewarding just because they're not connected through blood or law. Since there have always been deep fractures among the people I was related to, I've "borrowed" families. And I've been fortunate to have friends who are trusting and generous with their relations. I bike with other people's husbands and send them home dirty and tired. I spend holidays visiting nursing homes with my dogs or breaking bread with and messing up the homes of other people's relatives. I've nurtured plenty of kids, just not through an umbilical cord. A guy I dated used to complain, "you just don't seem to need me." I told him he was right, but wouldn't he prefer my desire to my need? Appar-ently he didn't, but I do.

I think of human relationships as a full-contact sport and am fortunate to know people who want to play on this rough-and-tumble field. But off the field, being alone isn't a burden or a curse. I've found that solitude and loneliness are different emotional reactions to the same condition. Being solitary is clean, sharp and blameless, like a gust of frigid air on a winter's day. Being lonely is that same wind on unprotected skin. And being lonely while in a relationship is a biting blast when someone you love won't share his coat.

I love my solitude. It provides me wide expanses of untrammeled time to explore the world, to write, read and create, to develop a variety of relationships with a variety of people. Sure, I'd love a real-deal, main-squeeze partner in life. It would be great to have someone to help shovel snow off the roof. Or massage the muscles I pull doing it myself. Or take me to the hospital if I slip. While friends will do those things for me, I know that the day-to-day can be easier and more fun when two people are deeply engaged in making their lives work, singly and together.

I was asked recently if I thought I'd be a better partner the next time around, having spent so much time single. When I think back to my time as a spouse, I see someone who followed the pattern of so many married women, scurrying around to keep up with the needs of my husband, my home, my in-laws. I think the next time around -- if there is one -- I will probably share my feelings in a slightly less frenzied way, holding back more energy and enthusiasm for myself. I know that this would make me a better, more contented and happier person. I can only hope there's someone out there who thinks it would also make me a better partner.

As a woman, being a soloist in your life takes a certain amount of, well, balls. You're more exposed and have much more individual responsibility than those deep within the collective clamor of a full orchestra. But playing solo -- especially with the help of a great back-up ensemble -- has shown me that when I focus on bringing whatever talents, passions and sweat I have to expressing the music in my head, I'm always thrilled with the company that shows up to listen and, sometimes, join in.

Not Just a Boy Toy

You may have seen him a department store. He wears an over-sized plaid shirt, black jeans, Doc Martens, and dark, wrap-around shades. He's Totally Cool Ken, and he's ready to take in a movie with his long-time girlfriend, Barbie. The shopping bag at his feet holds the surprise gift he's bought her, just because.He's the slim, smooth-skinned, steely-eyed essence of young, All-American manhood. But if you look closer, you'll notice that the double latte at his elbow is untouched, while the smile on his face seems frozen, as if holding back an angst that's been building inside him for years. Picking up a pen in his stiff fingers, he writes: Dear Lola, For the last 37 years, I've been dating the girl of my dreams. But whenever we try to consummate our romance, a barrier comes between us. Could it be our subconscious fear of commitment, or is it the flesh-toned, plastic undies that were permanently molded to our bodies when we rolled off our assembly lines?Poor Ken. He's a doll. A prince. A devoted friend who wants nothing more from life than to frolic on a sunny beach or spin his beloved across a gleaming ballroom. But where does it get him? And the intransigence of his underpants is just one of his problems. While Barbie basks in her role as cultural icon, an image of ideal femininity that for the last four decades has shaped little girls' dreams, Ken is at best ignored, and at worst, dismembered.Callie Krumholz, who's just turning 11, has out-grown her Barbies. But she still chuckles over the Ken doll who lost his leg when she used him as a gavel in a game of courtroom. And she sneers at the memory of the passive persona the boy doll displayed compared to his curvaceous counterpart. "He'd give Barbie a ride when she wanted to go somewhere," the Burlington fifth-grader remembers. "He was a prop to hold things up. Just another thing to dress."Sarah Strohmeyer, a reporter at the Valley News and author of the 1997 parody book, Barbie Unbound, describes how she used to entertain her four-year-old with schticks based on Ken's stupidity. "Ken would put the bananas in the toaster and she'd laugh and laugh," the author recalls. "I think my husband thought, what's the message we're giving here?" Her answer: "You're going to be strong and the guys in your life will just be another set of accessories."Even at Mattel, Ken's mothership, the attitude towards the doll is tellingly dismissive. "If you watch little girls playing with them, you'll see that Barbie is in charge and Barbie drives the car," reflects the company's director of marketing communications, who is apted named Lisa McKendall. "Barbie tells Ken what he should wear. It's an empowering thing for girls."According to Barbie's official Web site, www.barbie.com, Ken's last name is Carson. Read between the lines of his official resume, and it's clear that the doll's troubles reach back to 1961, the year he was introduced. To begin with, Ken Carson didn't arrive on the scene until two years after the debut of Barbie Millicent Roberts, aka Barbie. Clearly, in this case, the male was an afterthought. But that's not all. It's fairly well-known that Barbie was named for the daughter of Mattel founders Ruth and Elliott Handler. What fewer people realize is that Ken is named for the Handlers' son. With this odor of incest hanging over the molded couple, it's probably just as well that neither possesses the capacity to drop trou.The original Ken sported a spiffy tux, suitable for taking Barbie on a classy date. Unfortunately, however, the perfect escort had a devastating defect. Ken's flocked fiber crew-cut readily rubbed off, making him look as if he'd either undergone a recent round of chemotherapy or was a lot older than the nubile young date at his side.After his rough beginnings, things started to look up for Ken. His flocked locks were replaced with rooted flax or molded plastic coifs. As more and more models hit the marketplace, Ken's interests become increasingly multifaceted. And each new avocation was accompanied by another appropriate outfit. In 1962, Tennis Anyone? Ken learned that "love" can have more than one meaning. Touch Down Ken went all the way in 1963. Fountain Boy Ken, released in 1964, wore a smart white smock and came equipped with a tray of tempting milkshakes in a choice of strawberry or chocolate. And in 1966, Business Appointment Ken explored the ins and outs of office romance with the ever-lovely Career Girl Barbie.For the next 20 years, whatever outing Barbie craved, Ken proved a willing - and suitably attired - companion. Though his wardrobe reflected changing styles in fashion, he retained the same basic set of personal attributes. As Sun Gold Malibu Ken, Tropical Ken, California Dream Ken, and Wet and Wild Ken, he was definitely into the beach scene. One look at Great Shape Ken, Roller Skating Ken, or All Star Marathon Ken with his chin-length hair, and you knew that he treated his body as a temple.Mod Hair Ken from 1973, blow-dried, shag-haired, Hot Rockin' Ken from 1986, and 1989's Dance Club Ken proved that the man was hip. As 1964's Goin' Hunting Ken, Horse Lovin' Ken in 1982, and 1988's Animal Lovin' Ken - carrying his own cuddly chimp - he was clearly the outdoors type. And generous? Perfume Giving Ken included a small bottle of scent. Pearl Beach Ken bears a child-fitting ring that changes color in warm water. And Prince Ken, in his flashy gold thigh-highs, red doublet and sweeping blue and gold cape, comes with a sack of royal jewels, token of his true love for Rapunzel Barbie.Put it all together, and he was one hell of a guy.Despite Ken's apparent perfection and steadfast loyalty, Barbie wasn't content with her role as steady girlfriend. And neither was Mattel. Faced with the increasing mainstreaming of feminist ideals and stung by accusations that she was, of all things, a negative role model for her impressionable female fans, Barbie began to expand her horizons sometime in the early 1980s. The plastic girl who'd always just wanted to have fun suddenly developed an interest in dentistry. She joined each branch of the armed forces. She opened a petting zoo. She took up gymnastics and NASCAR racing. She reinvented herself as a rock star and a Boston Celtic, and she became the Got Milk? campaign's best endowed spokesdoll.But Ken? Throughout all Barbie's changes, he remained her faithful escort, when she was willing to have him. Lately, though, Ken is discovering his own needs matter, too. Stood-up Ken hasn't been content to just sit back and wait for Paleontologist Barbie to bring home a dinosaur bone. Left to his own devices, he's been getting in touch with his softer side, as well as developing an avid interest in a tow-headed toddler named Little Tommy. As Big Brother Ken, he slips on a baby carrier, packs a supply of diapers, pacifiers, bottles and rattles, and happily romps with the wee lad. As Dr. Ken, he buttons up his white coat, slips on his stethoscope, and cajoles Little Tommy onto his examining table. And as Father Ken, with Little Tommy as his altar boyÉsorry, just kidding.Big Brother Ken is "really great because you don't often see a male character in a nurturing role," gushes Mattel spokeswoman McKendall. "That's another really great message for girls to get." Until four years ago, she continues, Ken dolls were only sold as accessories to different lines of Barbies. But with the new "stand-alone" models, backed by their own commercial segments, the old boy is finally "coming into his own," she says.And come into his own he has. Despite Mattel's ongoing efforts to control its plastic offspring, the fact is that Ken, like Barbie, has developed a life of his own. Not long ago, no doubt inspired by his early experiments in the Krumholz household, Ken surfaced on San Francisco's Castro Street repackaged as Cross-Dressing Ken. McKendall's comment? "Sounds like product-tampering to me."Last year, Ken and Barbie made an unauthorized appearance in "Barbie Girl." The kitsch dance hit by the Swedish pop group Aqua features a startlingly deep-voiced Ken urging, "Come on Barbie, let's go party." Mattel sued the band for infringement of copyright. "We're still in legal wrangling, so I can't comment," says McKendall.And he's broken out all over the place between the pages of Barbie Unbound. Strohmeyer describes her book this way: "We took Barbie and placed her in 40 unconventional roles: Sylvia Plath Barbie has her head in the oven. Barbie of Arc is tied to a stake. Then we took photos."Though Barbie is, of course, the dominant player in Strohmeyer's photos, Ken also plays many significant, and often surprising, roles. In Welfare Queen Barbie, Ken shows up as someone suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder who spends most of his time making annoyance calls to utility companies. As J. Edgar Ken, he lounges on a couch in a blue lam* outfit with heels and an assortment of FBI paraphenalia. In a spread entitled, "Let's Go Navy: Barbie gets her tail hooked," Barbie gives Ken a good spanking. Strohmeyer has yet to hear from Mattel. She says she's waiting to see how the company reacts to a Cambridge theater group that's staging a live version of Unbound this December.The possibility that Ken will finally succeed in constructing an identity independent of Barbie raises exciting prospects for his future. Could Ken make friends - quietly, on his own terms - with flesh-and-blood boys? Absolutely not, according to the folks at Mattel.McKendall describes Ken's target market as "little girls, aged three to 12. The toy is not targeted for boys. It's still a product marketed for girls. No boys have Kens," she confidently asserts.This message has certainly come home to the vast majority of males. If a boy accuses another boy of liking Ken dolls or Barbies, explains one young man who insisted on anonymity, it's "the lowest of the low." But this attitude is silly, the child continues, because Ken isn't really all that different from the toys boys are supposed to play with. In fact, he acknowledges, he likes Ken quite a bit. "They're sort of like Legos, but more fun because everything's already built and there are nicer cars," he says. "The stuff is cool. Give Ken his own TV show and place a gun in his hands, and boys would play with him."

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