Tai Moses

How To Rescue Chained Dogs and Practice Nonviolence At the Same Time

The following is an excerpt from Zooburbia: Meditations On The Wild Animals Among Us (2014) by Tai Moses, with illustrations by Dave Buchen. Reprinted with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, parallax.org. This material may not be repurposed without written permission from Parallax Press.

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Monster cookies

You know how the cure is often worse than the disease? That's the case with palm oil, which has become a common substitute for artery clogging, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. But palm oil turns out to have its own dangers, both for people and for animals. The wild creatures of Indonesia, Borneo and Sumatra -- elephants, tigers, orangutans and rhinos -- are being driven from the forests by the race to cash in on the palm oil boom.

At the beginning of March, in a remote part of Indonesia, five wild elephants were found poisoned to death, probably by local farmers trying to drive them off so they could slash jungle to grow palm. Massive palm oil plantations already spread across vast tracts of land that used to be rainforest.

What is palm oil used in? One of its most common uses are cookies. It has also found its way into crackers, cereals and microwave popcorn. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has launched a campaign asking consumers to boycott products made with palm oil and to let food manufacturers know that, hell no, it ain't ok to destroy our great wild mammals for chocolate cream sandwich cookies, good as they are. The food industry can make its products with other easily available oils.

Even though CSPI says palm oil is nearly as bad for you as the stuff it's replacing, it's predicted to overtake soybean oil in the next decade as the world's most-used oil. And you know what that means: no more orangutans. The pensive reddish-orange apes (who share 97% of our DNA) are already hanging by a thread. When their forests disappear, so will they.

What to do? First of all, read labels and buy only products that use nonhydrogenated oils: soybean, canola, corn and peanut are all better choices for humans and for apes. CSPI is asking Wal-Mart -- the country's biggest grocery retailer -- to reformulate its house brands that use palm oil. Sign the petition here. Says Michael Jacobson, CSPI's director, "Palm oil should be used as a last resort, by consumers and corporations alike."

We will never run out of Oreos. I wish we could say the same for orangutans.

The Ten Best Top-Ten Lists

Top 10 lists are a staple of a culture obsessed with ranking things, yet in recent years the ubiquitous best-movie, -book and -music lists have become so baffling it seems as though their only goal is to eclipse the Top 10 lists of other critics. Still, lists can tell us much about ourselves -- our obsessions, anxieties and passions. Our Top 10 List of Lists hopes to capture the essence of 2005 by compiling the year's most superlative, truly notable, absolutely blue-ribbon cultural bric-a-brac.

1. Words

Merriam-Webster Online has created a window into our national preoccupations by releasing the Top 10 most-looked-up words of 2005, in order of their most-looked-uppedness.

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Sex and Taxxxes

Britney Spears is suing Us Weekly for libel (again). On Oct. 17 the gossipy mag ran a story saying that Spears and husband Kevin Federline were worried lest a secret sex tape they'd made get out. Spears said no such tape exists and demanded the magazine retract the story. Us refused, saying it stood by its report. Britney filed a lawsuit.

This happens at AlterNet all the time.

Still, something seems fishy. According to Us, Spears and Federline viewed the sexually explicit tape with their "estate planning lawyers." We consulted AlterNet's legal expert, Michael P. Kerner, about the seeming incongruity.

TM: You specialize in estate planning. Please explain, in ten words or less, what that is.

MPK: Cheating the government out of taxes.

TM: I notice you didn't mention anything about sex.

MPK: Sex is a critical part of estate planning.

TM: Why would a client ask an estate planner to watch a secret sex tape with them?

MPK: It's well accepted that estate planners are the best and the brightest in the legal profession. And in this particular instance, it's perfectly understandable that Britney and Justin --

TM: Kevin.

MPK: --that Britney and Kevin would be meeting with Britney's estate planning counsel. I am sure that Brit, like our president, believes that life begins at conception and it is never too early to begin planning for your children.

TM: What does that have to do with the sex tape?

MPK: Brit no doubt was meeting with her estate planners in order to ensnare a victim like Us and sue for millions of dollars and offset the incredible burden the estate tax is going to impose on her in the future. At the same time she could discuss setting up a trust for the children likely to be produced by the frolicking and get a jump on providing for their college education.

TM: Us claimed that while watching the tape with their lawyers, Spears and Federline allegedly acted "goofy." Goofy behavior in the company of lawyers. It strains credulity, does it not?

MPK: [Throat clearing, followed by silence.]

TM: However, Spears' suit says, "There was no laughter, disgust or goofy behavior while watching the video in the company of lawyers because they did not watch any video, and because there is no such video."

MPK: Estate planning is serious business. Brit knows that. All of us are going to be completely bankrupted if the estate tax is not repealed.

TM: Don't you mean the "death tax"?

MPK: Yeah, the death tax.

TM: Britney's estate planning lawyers have been curiously silent about the matter. In fact, we don't even know who they are. Could you speculate on their identities?

MPK: Actually I've applied for a job with that firm and I really can't discuss it.

TM: How many such tapes do you view on a weekly basis?

MPK: There are certain privileges that go along with our profession. But trust me, you wouldn't want to see most of my estate planning clients in the buff.

TM: Thank you for your time. You have provided comfort to Americans everywhere, and not just pop stars, who worry that their right to watch sex tapes in private with their lawyers may be eroded.

MPK: My pleasure.

Turkmenistan zoo story

Like many of you, I fret about Turkmenistan. Not only is the mountainous Central Asian republic isolated from the rest of the world, it's ruled by a dictatorial goofball who grows increasingly eccentric with each year.

In 2002, Turkmenistan's president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, renamed the months and the days of the week. Fair enough. This year he closed the libraries because he claimed his people weren't reading; put a stop to the import of foreign literature; and banned pre-recorded music. Then Turkmenbashi, as he likes to be called ("father of all Turkmen"), ordered his government ministers to learn how to speak English or get canned. "I don't care whether you pay for a teacher or you learn it on your own, but you have to talk English in six months. Anyone not fulfilling my decree will be sacked," declared the Anglophiliac tyrant. The jittery ministers won't be able to calm their nerves with a cigarette, since, after undergoing major heart surgery in 1997, Turkmenbashi quit smoking and demanded his ministers do the same.

Now the president has ordered the construction of an elaborate $21 million zoo that will house, among other animals, an abundance of penguins. It must be said that Turkmenbashi's heart is in the right place, or at least within spitting distance of the right place. He says that global warming is starving the penguins and he aims to save them.

Temperatures get blisteringly hot in this desert nation, but the despot is undeterred. Global warming didn't begin yesterday, Niyazov points out; if they want to be rescued, the penguins will just have to get used to the climate.

All Over But the Dying

Stanley Williams has, as they say in the parlance of desperation, exhausted all his appeals.

Just after noon today, Arnold Schwarzenegger denied Williams clemency, declaring bluntly that he did not buy the ex-gang leader's change of heart or claims of innocence. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption," wrote the California governor in his five-page statement of decision.

Williams' refusal to apologize for the crimes he has always claimed he did not commit seems to have been the deciding factor in the Governor's decision. "In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do."

Just prior to the release of Schwarzenegger's statement, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the 51-year-old Williams' request for a reprieve. His execution, by lethal injection, is scheduled to take place at 12:01am Tuesday. Reporters are thronging the gates of San Quentin prison, where the California Highway Patrol has beefed up security in anticipation of the thousands of protesters who are expected to gather this evening.

As for Williams himself, by all reports, he remains calm. At 6pm PST, he will eat his last meal in his cell. He will dictate his last words, if he chooses to leave any behind, to the prison warden. As he said recently, "If it's my time to be executed, what's all the ranting and raving going to do?"

The shape of things to come

Can a shape be politicized? Of course it can. In fact, shapes are the latest battleground in America's struggle for dominion over the world. At the center of controversy is the humble crescent -- a shape most of us associate with freshly baked rolls. To Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, however, the crescent is the symbol of Islamic fanaticism and he wants it removed from the design of a proposed 9/11 memorial honoring the passengers and crew of Flight 93.

The design of the memorial (although not the memorial itself) is called "Crescent of Embrace," and its creators say its shape is simply an organic outgrowth of the topography of the crash site. It has the approval of Flight 93 family members, local residents, officials, and other national figures. Tancredo has sent a letter to the National Park Service saying the crescent is "unsuitable for paying appropriate tribute to the heroes of Flight 93 or the ensuing American struggle against radical Islam." It is not known which shape Tancredo prefers over the crescent or whether he has yet written to NASA to object to the shape of the moon when in its crescent phase.

Getting cozy with Jack and Josie

Nothing surprises us anymore. We thought.

True, at first we were disturbed by this paragraph -- the beginning of a news story on today's Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts:

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Oeuf folie a deux

Flying to New York over the weekend, I had to listen to my seatmate complain about how hard it was to meet men. This woman had tried online dating, double dating, blind dating, speed dating, slow-motion dating -- she had done it all. Still, she was single. "Why is it so hard?" she wailed.

I laughed. I did not laugh because I was bitter that she had the aisle seat, although that was true. I laughed because I had recently seen a film that made her problems look like a walk in the park.

March of the Penguins depicts a winter in the life of the Emperor penguin. These intrepid birds trek 70 miles across icy terrain to their breeding ground, which resembles an enormous frozen singles bar without Guinness on tap. Somehow they manage to pick the perfect partner out of a crowd of thousands of identical birds. How do they do this? By singing.

After mating they wait around in subzero temperatures until Mrs. P produces a single egg. She passes the egg to Mr. P in an elaborately choreographed routine in which both birds carefully shuffle their hobbit feet back and forth until the egg is on top of the male's feet, protected by his ponderous, downy belly. If the egg touches the ice, it will turn instantly into an Antarctic egg cream.

The exhausted Mrs. P then trudges 70 miles back to the sea to get some food. Meanwhile, Mr. P incubates the egg, freezing and starving through blizzards and surrounded by a few thousand of his closest friends, who are also freezing and starving and anxiously incubating their eggs. Mr. P does this FOR TWO MONTHS.

Finally the chicks hatch, but the doting Mr. P can't rest yet, because if Little P slips off his feet it will quickly become a penguin popsicle. Fortunately, Mrs. P is on the way back to take over childcare duties, so Mr. P -- stiff, cranky, and near death from starvation -- can waddle off 70 miles to get his own dinner.

I related this story to Miss Lonelyhearts. "You think you've got it tough?" I said. "When was the last time you trekked across an ice field to meet a man?" As it happens, she had once climbed a glacier in Alaska for that very purpose. "Well, try doing it in a penguin suit," I said.

"Why do they do all that?" she asked. At least the story had taken her mind off her dating dilemmas.

Some people say they do because instinct tells them to. I think they do it for love.

Paul Hackett wants to go to Washington

If Paul Hackett is victorious in Ohio's 2nd District Congressional race on Aug. 2, he will be the first Iraq war veteran elected to public office.

Hackett's attack on the Bush administration has been relentless, focused, and elegant. He's campaigning -- it must be said -- like a soldier. Hackett, a progressive Democrat and a bit of an iconoclast, takes pleasure in showing how different he is from his far-right Republican opponent, the smooth-talking Jean Schmidt (whose style has been likened to that of "an elementary teacher reading to a group of fifth-graders").

"Look, I'm a Marine Corps combat vet," the Ohio native said during a recent debate with Schmidt. "I'm not soft on defense. I'm not soft on terrorism. Hell, I've looked terrorism in the eye, and I've vanquished it. But I'm hard on an administration that has not had the courage to put forth an Iraq terrorism policy that reflects reality."

Many think the Democrats could use just such a balls-out, tough-talking, strong-on-defense candidate to help them with their image problems.

Hackett, a lawyer who just returned from a seven-month tour of duty in Iraq, regularly blasts the Patriot Act, Bush's tax plan and the skyrocketing cost of the Iraq war (now nearing $200 billion). The driver of a hybrid car, he also criticizes the administration's plan to drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge. While he is strongly pro-choice, Hackett says, "I don't know anybody who thinks abortion is a good thing. Let's keep it safe, legal and rare." (Jean Schmidt is the president of a Cincinnati anti-abortion group).

"Ask yourselves these questions," Hackett said to the audience at the debate. "Are you better off in the past five years? Is your job safer? Do you even have a job? Are you paying more for health care? How about gasoline? If you send me down there [to Washington], I'll fight for you."

Parsing the legal matrix

Yesterday, President Bush finally commented publicly on the Rove case, saying that anyone who "committed a crime" connected with the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity would be dismissed from his staff. Previously, Bush had said the individual who had leaked Plame's name to reporters would be fired.

After mulling the subtleties of the statement every which way, we turned to AlterNet's legal expert, Michael P. Kerner. Kerner, a partner with the crack legal team of Janin, Morgan & Brenner, is a nationally renowned specialist in the rules and bylaws of legal obfuscation. He has been closely following the shifting verbal sands of Rove-Plame-Cooper-Miller-Wilson-McClellan.

TAI MOSES: What's your analysis of President Bush's comment yesterday?

MICHAEL P. KERNER: His statement was the most considered comment he's made since he was wired in the first debate. It's absolutely clear the comment was crafted by Bush's brain. It's lawyer talk. He was parsing the legal matrix.

TM: Why do lawyers talk that way?

MPK: Why do dogs lick their balls? Because they can. They're trying to avoid the tremendous legal pitfalls of speaking off the cuff, which is just about the only thing Bush is talented at.

TM: Who do you think coached him?

MPK: A full cadre of highly trained, white-collar criminal lawyers.

TM: You're suggesting that these lawyers are themselves white-collar criminals?

MPK: Yeah, yeah.

TM: Can we expect to hear more from President Bush about Rove-Plame-Cooper-Miller-Wilson-McClellan?

MPK: You can expect to hear the same comment over and over again. His memory bank is limited. Only one comment per week.

TM: It's your belief then, that they've got Karl Rove off the hook.

MPK: They've been working on this project for two years, figuring out how to get Rove off the hook. It's clear they believe they've got him out of the woods, legally.

TM: So, legally he is out of the woods and off the hook. How about politically?

MPK: Politically doesn't matter for Karl Rove; it matters only for George Bush.

TM: Say more.

MPK: Now they have to figure out a way to allow George Bush to keep Karl Rove on the payroll and working at home in his jammies.

TM: Who are these lawyers?

MPK: They're all members of the Federalist Society.

TM: What is this Federalist Society?

MPK: It's a super-conservative group of mostly lawyers who believe in strict construction of the Constitution. They are largely responsible for putting Bush in the White House. They're probably behind the selection of the replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor and they will be behind Rehnquist's eventual replacement.

TM: Thank you for talking with us today.

MPK: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TM: 'Wired in the first debate' ... you think?

MPK: It doesn't take a Harvard law degree.

Defending a culture of punctuation

Word that President Bush is considering someone who is both a woman and a non-judge to take Sandra Day O'Connor's place on the Supreme Court filled me with anticipation.

"We're considering all kinds of people -- judges, non-judges," the president said. "...the American people can rest assured that I understand the seriousness of this responsibility and I will name someone who will bring dignity to the court, someone who will be able to do the job and someone who will sit on that bench..."

Well, stop right there and start measuring me for that black robe. You see, I am a woman -- and I'm also not a judge! Of course, just because I have those two crucial things going for me does not automatically make me eligible for service on the Supreme Court. I also have to have opinions on a wide variety of topics, argue persuasively and write my decisions down. Hell, I do that all the time.

And I must be able to tell the difference between politics and law, so as not to be thought of as one of those "activist" judges. I understand this distinction perfectly. Politics is about power: how to get it, keep it, use it. Law is the system of rules that governs the getting, keeping and using of power. How hard is that?

The current justices have indicated they would welcome a non-judge to their somewhat stuffy group, and even Senate Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter agreed with Bush that choosing someone from outside the federal court system would inject a breath of fresh air into the often stale proceedings of the nation's highest court.

As a federal judge, Specter said, you "look at records, you read cases, you have very little contact with people. But if they had a little more practical experience and didn't work so much within the footnotes and the semicolons, you might have a little different perspective, and I'd like to see that added to the court."

I could certainly bring a different perspective to the court. Although, I admit, that last statement gives me pause. Semicolons; what could the chairman possibly have against semicolons? The law depends upon their judicious placement; believe me, many a tragedy could have been avoided had some reckless person not used a comma where a semicolon was called for.

I hope this issue doesn't come up in the confirmation process, because it would be hard for me to conceal my radical views on punctuation. Commas, periods and parentheses are not just marks on paper -- they are the underpinnings of civilization, the architecture of reason itself. Were it up to me, and let's hope it will be, there would be rules and regulations governing punctuation in our great land. That way, thoughtless and inattentive individuals couldn't go around deleting semicolons; at least not without prior written permission from a higher grammatical authority.

Soon to be a major motion picture

What did screenwriter William Goldman say about Hollywood? That nobody knows anything? That is undoubtedly true, but you don't have to know much to know that Marla Ruzicka's life story would make a great movie.

Ruzicka, who was tragically killed in Baghdad on April 16 in a suicide bombing, was already thinking of writing a book about her experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, helping civilian victims of war. Now Paramount has bought the film rights to her story and the movie industry is aflutter with rumors about who will be cast in the role of the courageous aid worker. Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman and Kirsten Dunst have been floated as possibilities (no word on whether Angelina Jolie is in the running, even though she plays an aid worker in real life). Marla once joked she'd like Drew Barrymore to play her.

My vote goes to Brittany Murphy, who showed she could do outstanding dramatic work in 8 Mile. Besides, Brittany, like Marla, is cute, but not too sexy (like Dunst); too beautiful (like Portman); or too Legally Blonde (like Witherspoon).

Marla's parents, who struck the deal with Paramount, plan to donate proceeds to the organization their daughter founded, CIVIC Worldwide. Says Marla's sister, Jill, who signed onto the project as executive producer, "We hope this movie will tell the story of a fascinating, kick-ass woman."

The uses of accordions

I have decided to believe in synchronicity. And signs. Symbols, too. I also believe in the possibility that these things have absolutely no meaning at all. Still: many years ago I was walking through an empty lot near my house agonizing over whether or not to break up with my boyfriend, and I spied a doggeared old playing card half-hidden in the weeds. I turned it over with the toe of my shoe: it was the Extra Joker. As Alan Watts used to say, "When you get the message, hang up the phone."

The people at Found magazine are well aware of this curious tension running through modern life: the fervent wish to believe that the smallest coincidences have meaning; the knowledge that they have only the meaning one assigns to them. Found invites readers to send them artifacts and objects and stories about objects they stumble across in their daily lives: love letters, photographs, ticket stubs, drawings, poems on napkins -- "anything that gives a glimpse into someone else's life."

Found collects famous people's stories about found stuff too. For example: When Ken Kesey was a boy he found an old accordion. It didn't work so he and his brother took the thing apart, really dismantled it completely. Inside they found a note that read: "WHAT THE HELL YOU LOOKING IN HERE FOR, DAISY MAE?" Wrote Kesey, "Well, I achieved some kind of satori right there -- knowing that somebody had sometime, a very long while ago, gone in there and put that sign in the accordion, and he's betting all the time that someday somebody's going to come along and find it."

Kesey the accordion-dissector grew up to become a novelist, which is nearly the same thing. Keep an eye out for unintended messages. If you intercept them at the right time, in the right frame of mind, they may change your life.

Nagasaki remembered

Recently disinterred from the ash pile of the past is journalist George Weller's wrenching report about the U.S. atomic attack on Nagasaki. Weller was the first Western reporter to make his way to the Japanese island in September 1945, a month after the United States dropped a 4.5-ton atom bomb on the city center, killing tens of thousands of people.

Weller's report has been buried for six decades; military censors confiscated the reporter's notebooks and suppressed his account under orders from General MacArthur. The dispatches were presumed lost, even by Weller, until his son found the carbon copies in his father's study, two years after Weller's death, and they are being serialized this month in Mainichi, a national Japanese newspaper.

Weller wanted to give the world a precise visual picture of the dreadfulness of war. All these years later, his words have the power of forensic poetry:

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The public servant known as Karl Rove

Michael Moore, who posts letters from servicemembers on his website in the hopes of irritating the powers-that-be-behind, has posted a blistering note from one Celeste Zappala, who wants to know why Karl Rove won't take her calls.

Rove's recent rant against the Democrats did not make Mrs. Zappala very happy. Her son, a National Guardsman who was killed in action in Iraq in April 2004, was, she says, "a very liberal Democrat" -- the very breed of individual Rove derided in his speech as pansies who pass out petitions. Writes Mrs. Zappala of her son,

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Counting On Marla

I knew Marla Ruzicka only a few short years, but that was all it took for her to leave an indelible impression on me.

Marla's self-assigned mission in life was to help innocent people who are caught in the crossfire of armed conflict. So, perhaps it was fitting, in the brutally impersonal way of the universe, that Marla herself became an innocent victim of war. On Saturday, April 16, Marla was killed in a car bomb attack as her vehicle traveled along the road to the Baghdad airport. She was 28 years old.

Marla Ruzicka was a paradox. In some respects, she was the quintessential California girl -- so pretty, blond and lively she could be mistaken for a cheerleader. But behind that luminous smile was a person of remarkable strength who possessed a purple heart of courage.

I first met Marla in 2001, shortly after she had returned from a trip to Afghanistan. Since she would be in the Bay Area only a short time, Marla had arranged a party with a two-pronged purpose: to see as many of her friends and colleagues as possible and to raise money for the aid work she was doing. People gathered at a restaurant in the Mission to share a meal and purchase textiles Marla had brought back from Afghanistan.

Eventually it was time for the money pitch; someone always has to give the money pitch, to encourage people to open up their wallets. But I had never heard a pitch like Marla's. She told us about the Afghan people she had met, not as an anonymous mass of victims, but as individuals with names and stories. She laughed at some memories; her eyes filled with tears at others. She talked about them as if they were members of her family, and in a sense they were. I still have the diaphanous black shawl I got that day.

Marla's close friend Tony Newman tells the story of how they met, more than a decade ago at the Global Exchange office in San Francisco, where he then worked. He noticed a girl of about 15 or 16 grabbing up all the newsletters and brochures she could carry. When the teenager had collected an armload, he couldn't ignore her any longer. "I went and asked, 'Are you being helped?' and she said, 'I'm from Lakeport, and I want to educate everyone in my school about what's going on in the world.'"

They spoke for a while. By the time Marla left, Tony had agreed to come to Lakeport to give a talk about his work. "I was totally impressed with her enthusiasm," he said. "I thought Lakeport was in Marin. I didn't know it was like four hours away."

Tony drove up to Lakeport and searched the unfamiliar town for the hall where he was to speak. "The first person I asked for directions on the street said, 'Are you here to give the Global Exchange talk?'" Marla, Tony says, had informed the entire town about his talk. Her dentist, her mailman, her basketball coach -- everyone she knew was there. "I was so impressed and blown away that this young girl was able to turn out 70 people in this small town," Tony said. "That's more people than you get in San Francisco!"

People who knew Marla say she gave off a sort of glow, as if she were lit from within. That was just her nature, but a true fire was ignited during her first visit to Afghanistan, as she told an interviewer:

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The Invisible Writers

Many years ago I knew a grizzled old playwright named Ray. He lived off state disability checks, carried his manuscripts in brown paper bags, and drank cup after cup of black coffee, which I poured for him from behind the counter of the coffee shop where I worked.

He had one piece of advice for me: "Read Othello. If you want to be a writer you must first read Othello."

Ray was a blue-collar guy who had never gone to college, but he had read Shakespeare, checked out from the public library near the furnished room where he lived. Ray understood plot because he had lived and experienced it. He was a born writer.

Over the years I've met a diverse collection of writers who have never been published or earned any academic credentials, yet whose claim to the title of artist is genuine. These invisible writers are soldiers and bakers, convicts and salesmen, winos, hairdressers, firefighters, farmers and waitresses. Their only qualifications to literary authenticity are their writings and their desire to write. Often the only time they have is stolen time, and their private scrawls end up on cocktail napkins, penciled in the margins of receipts, on any piece of paper handy.

I got to know Tom Carson during the first Gulf War, shortly after his platoon had been sent to Kuwait. We never met in person. He had written to a former co-worker of mine who had moved and left no forwarding address. When I saw the U.S. military return address on Tom's letter, I decided to answer it myself. Our correspondence lasted through the war and after he returned to Fort Benning, Georgia.

During a hectic two-month period, Lt. Carson wrote 39 poems. His themes were the regimented insanity of military life, isolation and loneliness, the wind and rain of his soul. Carson wrote his lines in rare solitude, in a barracks or a tent. During the day, he told me, the thoughts gathered in his head; he censored them but the forbidden words found expression anyway, for even the U.S. Army cannot discipline the imagination.

People imprisoned in stultifying, menial jobs can summon, with even a minimal command of language, something entirely private, unfettered and incalculably powerful. Most importantly, it is something of their own creation that cannot be taken away. The sense of purpose and identity that comes with being a writer, creator of a private world, can be life altering.

I've known truck drivers who were natural-born storytellers; fishermen who paint starkly beautiful word pictures of life on a crab boat in the Bering Strait. I met a barely literate ex-convict whose short story about losing his wife and child in a revenge killing for a gang crime he'd committed was the most heartbreaking thing I've ever read. I met a recovering alcoholic who wrote about being abandoned by her husband. In a few simple paragraphs this uneducated woman in her mid-50s expressed a universal sense of loss in an entirely unsentimental fashion, something that cannot be taught in any MFA program.

My father, a novelist who was never published, once wrote about being fired for writing on the job. He worked on an assembly line in a factory that manufactured radios, and the foreman caught him writing one day while the neglected radio parts moved past him on the belt. "I was only half a radioman," my father wrote. "In my heart, I was a poet."

Chester Himes wrote in The Quality of Hurt: "No matter what I did or how I lived, I had considered myself a writer....It was my salvation. The world can deny me all other employment, and stone me as an ex-convict...as a disagreeable, unpleasant person. But as long as I write whether it's published or not, I'm a writer."

I met Celia at a roadside diner, where she cooked greasy breakfasts for travelers whose faces she'd never again see. Writing, for Celia, was a way of being elsewhere, of undoing, undreaming, her mundane daily life. The monotony of her job and the deadening rituals she performed daily were the inspirations for the poems she scribbled on used order tickets. To hate your job and do nothing about it is a failure of imagination: a true life sentence.

A Frenchman I know who was a maitre d' at one of Washington's finest restaurants, possesses a novel he composed in the twilight time between the lunch rush and the dinner hour. His joy on writing it was immeasurable. That it may never be published did not faze him. The point is that he created it. He finished it. It is his.

"Fiction completes us, mutilated beings burdened with the awful dichotomy of having only one life and the ability to desire a thousand," Mario Vargas Llosa wrote.

I've often looked for my old playwright friend Ray's name in print, but have never seen it. I imagine him sitting in a coffee shop somewhere, brow furrowed as he revises lines of his latest play, completely absorbed in the world of his characters. I'm sure Ray was frustrated at times that his work went unrecognized, but it never occurred to him to quit, just like it would never occur to him to stop breathing.

It is not strictly a tragedy that Ray's plays, the maitre'd's novel or Celia's poems remain unpublished. Much of the work comes into being for private reasons of the heart. If every sentence that was written was printed and bound we would drown in a sea of words – as it is, thousands of books are hastily published, barely read and forgotten. Writing itself is the aim, for it is writing, not publishing, that transforms individual human experience.

To write, even in obscurity is worthwhile. As Samuel Becket put it, writing is a way of leaving "a stain upon the silence."

Tai Moses is a senior editor at AlterNet.

Is Nothing Sacred?

Some years ago I had a job working on the staff of a geological sciences journal. On the wall of the office was a bumper sticker that read: Earth First! We'll Mine the Other Planets Later.

Kind of funny. But I soon learned that it was an accurate portrayal of the sensibilities of some of my colleagues; decent people who appreciated nature but whose obsession with minerals, gems and other geologic goodies tended to shape their worldviews. The earth was a container full of mysteries to be discovered and used.

My boss, a mining geologist, once showed me a photograph he had taken of Bingham Canyon, the largest open-pit mine in the world. Located near Salt Lake City, the mine measures nearly a mile deep and two and a half miles across, and in its 100-year existence it has yielded about 17 million tons of copper, as well as gold, silver and other ores.

This boss of mine was a good guy; generous, fair, intellectually curious. We agreed on many things, but when it came to the environment, we parted ways. To him, Bingham Canyon was a marvel of technology and science. To me, it was a poster pit for pollution: for poisoned rivers and groundwater; for arsenic and other toxic byproducts of mining – not to mention sheer ugliness.

That conversation has been on my mind a lot lately, as the election looms and the differences between the candidates come into sharper focus. John Kerry and George W. Bush are polarized on many issues, but perhaps none so intensely as the environment. A look at their voting records, policies and platforms reveals that, when it comes to that diverse collection of concerns we call "the environment," the two candidates are standing on opposite sides of a philosophical abyss as wide and deep as Bingham Canyon.

Bush is intent upon gutting federal protections to our air, water and wildlands. He will drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska; slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency; and overturn the 40-year-old Wilderness Act, which protects tens of millions of acres of the country's pristine forests from the oil, gas, timber and mining industries. These aggressive attacks on the environment are a clear sign that the very air we breathe has become a casualty of what author John Carroll calls, "the slow-motion wreck of American values that has occurred over the past three years."

In a recent editorial, the New York Times observed that the Bush administration "seems to make no accommodation for anything besides humans' economic desires."

There is a simple reason for this: one of the core values of Bush conservatives is that natural resources are there to be exploited for the good of mankind. In their view, the world – and especially nature – is a hostile place that needs to be conquered and controlled. Bush's policies are the modern-day extension of Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century belief in bringing god, civilization and technology to the primitive, untamed lands of the West.

That became crystal clear in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, when he declared that, "In this century, the greatest environmental progress will come about not through endless lawsuits or command-and-control regulations, but through technology and innovation."

The Republican party platform includes a detailed discussion of environmental policy, but most of it is linked to the supply of energy. Environmental conservation for its own sake gets only a nod. The platform refers to "modernizing" the Endangered Species Act, and developing the Artic Refuge using the most "sophisticated technologies."

The Bush administration wants to reduce the role of government, dismantle pesky regulations and assert man's dominion over nature; in this, they avow they are doing "god's work."

Oddly, visiting shock and awe on the environment is hardly in concert with traditional Republican values. After all, we have President Eisenhower (a Republican) to thank for designating the Arctic Refuge, and Republican president Theodore Roosevelt was a renowned conservationist whose legacy includes the very Wilderness Act that Bush is dismantling.

More moderate Republicans – that is, pre-Reagan administration – have historically supported some measure of government regulation and acknowledged the need to protect and preserve the land.

Aimee Christensen, executive director of Environment2004, says, "Conservation is deeply ingrained in the Republican ethos, and Bush is betraying his Republican roots."

A growing number of old-school Republicans, alarmed at the right-wing tilt of their party, are trying to foster some reforms. Martha Marks, founder of Republicans For Environmental Protection, told Sierra Magazine that the GOP has "been hijacked over the last two decades, catering to special-interest money and ideologues."

The result, Marks says, is "an anti-environmentalism that flies in the face of some of Roosevelt's most inspiring pronouncements: 'I do not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many.'"

Polls reveal that the majority of Americans, no matter what political party they belong to, desire stronger environmental protections. People want to breathe clean air and drink fresh water. They want their children to enjoy the same beaches, deserts and mountains as they did when they were kids.

As linguist George Lakoff says, the weaker the conservatives' positions, the more Orwellian their language. Since Bush knows that most Americans want a healthy environment, he employs deceptively labeled legislation like "Clear Skies" and "Healthy Forests" to camouflage the fact that these bills are gifts to industry polluters and do little to protect the environment or the interests of the average American.

John Kerry, unlike Bush, talks about the environment in terms of responsibility and nurturance. Kerry recognizes that environmental issues are public health and safety issues: communities that are free of toxins are healthy, secure communities, able to care for healthy children and families.

As a strong believer in conservation, Kerry is upholding not just progressive values, but traditional American values. "As Americans," his web site says, "we have the right to breathe unpolluted air, drink safe water, eat uncontaminated food, live in clean communities and enjoy our natural treasures. In the 21st century, we can have progress without pollution – we can grow our economy while protecting our natural resources."

A clean environment, Kerry emphasizes, is an American right. Forests, rivers, wetlands and oceans, fish and wildlife – these things have their own intrinsic value and are not to be recklessly exploited. Kerry promises that he will "defend our environmental values and protect our environmental rights."

George Bush wants to let power plants spew three times more poisonous mercury into the air than they currently do; John Kerry co-sponsored a bill in 2003 that would cut power plant emissions of mercury and other pollutants.

Bush and Kerry have warring visions on the environment, because the environment represents different things to each of them. Bush sees nature as a treasure trove of raw materials to be used for short-term gain. To John Kerry, wildlands, rivers and oceans are publicly held assets to be cared for and guarded for future generations.

Sometime it seems like I'm looking at that photograph of Bingham Canyon all over again. And I wonder: is it a shining example of man's domination over nature – or just a big, ugly hole in the ground?

The Meaning of One Thousand

We were participating in that most ancient of human rituals – communal mourning. Strangers sharing the lighting of candles and mingling of flames, our thoughts unified by a single theme: grief for the dead and longing for peace.

Like thousands of other Americans around the country, I was at a candlelight vigil Thursday evening to remember the more than 1,000 U.S. service members killed in Iraq and the tens of thousands of Iraqi dead. Coordinated by MoveOn.org, Win Without War, Military Families Speak Out and other groups, the vigils took place in 900 cities and drew upwards of 40,000 people.

Nearly 250 people from neighborhoods around Lake Merritt, in Oakland, Calif., gathered at the colonnade on the edge of the lake to stand quietly, candles in hand. A few held placards reading "1,000 Dead," "Quagmire," or "No End In Sight." Some were still in work clothes; other came in exercise outfits. An organizer made a brief announcement at the start of the vigil and again halfway through, but other than that, there were no speeches, only whispering and then silence.

Passing drivers slowed to look and honk in support. Vigil participants stood with heads bowed over their candles or gazing out across the water as the silent moments ticked by. The dark silhouette of a bird flew overhead. A few early stars came out. The breeze blowing off the lake made some of the flames flicker and die. People shared butane lighters and relit their candles. A homeless man ambled by, calling out "John Kerry, John Kerry, y'all!"

I searched the expressions of my neighbors. Most people looked somber, meditative. What were we thinking about, during those 45 wordless minutes? What went on in our private, innermost thoughts?

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Troops Rally For Regime Change Battle

Super Tuesday was John Kerry's Rubicon. The furious, but not so fast general presidential contest began, in all its excessive glory and gore. While George W. Bush made his disingenuous congratulatory phone call to Kerry on Tuesday, the president's campaign was working to churn out the beginning of millions of dollars of television and radio ads that will try to negatively define John Kerry for swing voters in a number of key states. Kerry, for his part, didn't hesitate to set the tenor of his campaign -- his victory speech ripped Bush on health care, jobs and national security, and charged the administration with having "the most inept, reckless, and ideological foreign policy in modern history."

Meanwhile, the online advocacy group MoveOn.org, intent on covering Kerry's back, shifted its three-tier operation into high gear. It urged its members to open their wallets and contribute to the Kerry campaign, and MoveOn PAC asked members to become campaign activists and pledge a certain number of hours per week reaching out to potential voters on the web, telephone, and in face-to-face conversations. (On March 5, that number had reached 6,677,580 hours.) And the MoveOn.org Voter Fund (the organization's 527 arm) launched the first shot in a new volley of television ads critical of Bush's policies slated to air throughout the 17 battleground states (those decided by fewer than 6 percentage points in 2000).

MoveOn is now over two million people strong in the United States. This number is unprecedented in the history of hands-on activist organizations with the freedom to operate in political campaigns. As MoveOn itself points out: "We're bigger than the Christian Coalition at its peak. To put it another way, one in every 146 Americans is now a MoveOn member. And we're still growing fast."

MoveOn is joined in its work by a range of others, including America Coming Together (ACT) and the Media Fund, which are both supported by labor union SEIU, Sierra Club, Emily's List, and high-powered donors. Other groups are doing non-partisan voter registration and education work, including the progressive coalition America Votes, Women Vote! Project, Russell Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, League Of Young Voters, National Voice and hundreds of other voter registration, grassroots and advocacy groups. Collectively they all make up the diverse army that can be defined as the "regime change movement."

Partisan groups like MoveOn.org Voter Fund and ACT did not endorse a candidate in the primary. In the spirit of Anybody But Bush Again, they waited for a potential nominee to emerge, and now that he has, they are firmly behind him and digging in for the big fight.

As journalist Christopher Hayes wrote in January, "Issue advocacy and voter contact in an election year is nothing new, but never before have progressive groups come together to coordinate their efforts, pool their resources and collectively execute the program."

Power Of The 527s

Because of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, and the progressive movement coming alive in recent years -- much as the Christian Coalition did in the '80s and '90s -- this election has a new dynamic.

McCain-Feingold indirectly empowered the Democrats' progressive base, since it moved much of the soft money (unregulated money, in contrast to the $2,000 personal limit for each candidate) out of the Democratic and Republican parties. Into the breach stepped the 527s, which operate independently of parties and candidates, but are powerful anti-Bush forces and have been well-funded by progressive philanthropists such as George Soros and Peter Lewis, and labor unions like AFSCME and SEIU. (There are some Republican 527s, but they are not nearly as developed at this stage.)

These 527s are controversial, in part because Republicans see how progressives, with the help of big donors, have created an infrastructure that can do battle while Kerry gets his funding legs over the next month. Kerry spent his war chest winning the primaries and finished with just $2 million in the bank, while the Bush campaign intends to spend at least $100 million before the political conventions this summer. Kerry announced his intention to raise $80 million to compete with Bush. After the conventions each candidate will receive $75 million in matching federal funds.

The Federal Election Commission has issued complicated rules for potentially restricting the activities of the 527s, but there is a heated debate about what McCain-Feingold stipulated and how the rules should be applied. Stay tuned, because this topic will be bouncing around for the next month or two.

Kerry the Contender

In the meantime, the various factions of the regime change movement are hard at work. Besides covering the Kerry campaign with television ad buys and registering voters in key states, MoveOn et al play another important role; they can work to create an infrastructure to support Kerry after he is elected and presumably hold him accountable when the pressures from corporate interests mount.

They can also help to keep the candidate honest. It was on the steam of progressive support that the Massachusetts senator, over the last six months, morphed from Candidate Kerry into Kerry the Contender. Any guy who blazes through the primary season the way John Kerry has is bound to walk with a spring in his step. But will Kerry be able to keep his spine straight when the going gets tough?

As John Nichols wrote in the Nation, the DLC will lean on Kerry to soften his rhetoric, hoping to make him more palatable to moderates. "With the nomination fight winding down, Kerry will be pressured to devolve toward the cautious centrism that characterized the early, 'going nowhere fast' stage of his campaign." That would be a shame, and poor strategy, too. What the Democratic Party needs is a good strong streak of populist outrage, and the regime change movement is counting on it. Kerry should heed Nichols' reminder that, "when he started evolving into a more aggressive and progressive candidate, he started winning."

Which Side Are You On?

No one is fooling themselves that the next eight months will be easy. The presidential campaign will essentially be a nasty war in which advertisements and media coverage are the bombs, while grassroots voter registration are the ground troops in communities and states that are truly split. Campaign newbies are advised to apply the "tuff skin" and stay focused. As the progressive base of the election campaign keeps gaining momentum and visibility, many organizations will inevitably become targets for Republican smear attacks.

This election pits political sides from almost two distinct cultures: On the Bush side is the southern and western predominantly fundamentalist Christian, white-male dominated, conservative voter, wary of or downright opposed to minorities, gays and feminists. On the Democratic side is the more urban, suburban, diverse voter in the northeast, Midwest and west coast, who believes that resources should be shared and certain rights protected, and who rejects the intolerance of Bush's fundamentalist base. On top of it all, the Bush administration has opted for a culture war campaign, focusing on religion, gay marriage and guns. And the right to choose, environmental sustainability and economic justice will all be hanging in the balance on Nov. 2, 2004.

With positions, messages and values this starkly opposing, there won't be many undecided voters in this race.

The Battle Plan

America Coming Together is serving as the "footsoldiers" of the movement in the battleground states, which will likely be Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. ACT's mission, according to its president, Ellen Malcolm, is to "mobilize millions of voters who will say no to the Republican agenda at every level." Using both sophisticated technology and plain old shoe leather, ACT workers canvas neighborhoods and go door to door, talking to people and registering voters. As ACT steadily adds new Democratic-leaning voters to the rolls, MoveOn has already made a major mark.

Last fall, MoveOn.org Voter Fund set a goal of raising $10 million in small contributions from members in order to air advertisements in battleground states. With 170,000 MoveOn members contributing an average of $60 each, matched by some of the top donors, MOVF exceeded its fundraising goal. On March 4, MOVF kicked off the last stage of the $10 million campaign, running TV ads in 67 media markets in 17 states.

In most states, MOVF ads focus on the "kitchen table economy," highlighting issues such as job losses to outsourcing and Bush's plan to eliminate overtime pay. In other states, including Florida, Maine, Minnesota and Nevada, MOVF will run "Child's Pay" (winner of the Bush In 30 Seconds ad contest), which underscores the Bush budget deficit. (This issue resurfaced with a vengeance after Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently suggested cutting vital services and Social Security benefits in order to pay off the burgeoning federal debt.)

MoveOn president Wes Boyd announced Friday that the organization would spend another $1 million on television ads highlighting the growing economic insecurity in the country. "In light of the disappointing jobs numbers today, which demonstrate again that the President has no plan for getting many Americans back to work, we've decided that it's important for our message to stay on the air," Boyd said.

Real People Matter

MoveOn has demonstrated forcefully -- as did the Dean campaign -- that real people still matter in American politics. Small donors have the clout to undermine the most corrupt elements of American politics, in which political giving is almost always a quid pro quo; corporate lobbyists trade money for policy favors and the wealthy for access to politicians.

As MoveOn is the first to point out, this tidal wave of engagement and activism isn't exclusive to them. Virtually every progressive group, from Greenpeace to the ACLU, has seen an increase in membership and donations. Circulation of progressive magazines are way up, while web traffic to independent news sites is through the roof. President Bush said he was a uniter, and he was right; he is uniting people across America to fight to get their country back.

The new democratic groundswell draws its strength from the hopes of millions of people, standing up and taking action for a better country and a better world. They refuse to let lobbyists, attack politics and fear-mongering destroy America's democracy. Against the courage and conviction of such people, even Karl Rove and Bush's $100 million campaign fund don't look so daunting.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet, currently on leave. Tai Moses is senior editor of AlterNet.

A Conversation with Jonathan Schell

In 1982, Jonathan Schell wrote "The Fate of the Earth," a bestseller about the grim realities of nuclear proliferation that galvanized millions of readers and became a cornerstone of the movement to abolish nuclear weapons.

He has published nearly a dozen books in the years before and after "The Fate of the Earth," but with his newest book, "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People," Schell may again have the chance to spark another national conversation; this time, about the growing dangers of military power and the need for nonviolent solutions to geopolitical conflicts.

schellTo write a book about nonviolence at a time when the U.S. government is increasingly at war with the world takes a rare sort of intellectual bravery. But Schell, who spent more than a decade researching and writing the book, pulls no punches. "In a steadily and irreversibly widening sphere, violence, always a mark of human failure and a bringer of sorrow, has now also become dysfunctional as a political instrument," he writes.

I met Schell recently in Barcelona where, with seven other progressive American journalists, we were panelists at a conference in honor of World Press Freedom Day. We were a diverse, lively group, our political views ranging from the moderate Tina Rosenberg of the New York Times to the radical Robert Jensen from the University of Austin.

"The Unconquerable World" came out the day after Schell arrived in Barcelona and was promptly reviewed, and as he said, "savaged" in the New York Times. Schell took this disappointment with equanimity; I got the sense that his is a deeply attentive nature no matter what his surroundings or situation. There amid the fantastic whimsy of Gaudi's Barcelona, the Catalans – who had declared their passionate opposition to the war on Iraq at a 1.3 million-person peace march in February down the broad tree-lined Rambla Catalyuna – put us all at ease.

He gave me a copy of the book and I began reading it on the long flight back to the States. It's a searching, eloquent inquiry into war and the nonviolent movements that have grown up alongside war, as well their champions, from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to Woodrow Wilson and Hannah Arendt.

Recently, Schell came through San Francisco and we met to talk about his book and how it was being received. "What's been very happy for me," he said, "is that as I've gone around the country, in the community of opposition I've had very warm and encouraging responses and this is hugely meaningful to me. I feel that if this can happen then I'm reaching the people I want to reach."

In your introduction you say that it's the business of your book to describe changes that, even as they have made our world more perilous, have made the chance for world peace greater than ever before. Can you summarize?

Jonathan Schell: I try to trace two long, parallel and interconnected developments. The first is the fantastic increase and growth in the means of violence and warfare, which extends really from gunpowder right down to nuclear weapons – which are a true turning point in the history of warfare, because in effect they make it impossible. Victory and defeat are ruled out and it just turns into mutually assured destruction for all, as they said during the Cold War.

I trace that development, which leads to the edge of the annihilation of the human species. And as part of that you also find that there's a transformation of warfare that's occurring at what you might call the root level of warfare, which is the "people's war." And people's war turns out to be a means whereby militarily and technically and economically weak countries can defeat the great powers of the 20th century. And not just once or twice but absolutely uniformly. So it's a kind of amazing and unexpected development because in conventional warfare you're always taught that the superior military force wins. But in people's war, the superior military force loses, consistently.

Like in Vietnam?

Vietnam, the Chinese revolution, and in fact, at the end of the day, all of the empires of the 20th century, save one – the one we're sitting in – are gone! They bite the dust. So that's all one huge line of development, which is a very profound transformation in the nature of war. It doesn't mean war is impossible because you see Iraq, and there are plenty of wars in the world, but they tend to become these wars that go on within countries, like in Rwanda, or Sri Lanka or in the Sudan, almost quasi civil wars or inter-ethnic struggles like Yugoslavia.

So that's all one long development which I think of as a sort of bankruptcy of violence. Not that violence ever was a wonderful thing, it always was a tragedy and a horror, but now it really has become increasingly bankrupt on its own terms; in other words, it doesn't even bring the victory that was always the temptation for war.

But then I trace another development of which people's war is also a part. Really I think it's a new kind of power that has been slowly developing and in a way to me that's the more interesting part of the book because it means that a means of existence whereby peoples can defeat superior violence has become more and more effective. So people's war is a part of that. But then it occurred to some people; well, if we can defeat great powers with inferior violence, maybe we can do without any violence at all.

And Gandhi did that. And they did it in bringing down the Soviet Union too, the Solidarity movement in Poland, the movements in Eastern Europe, which were very inspiring to me, and then eventually it flooded into Russia and Russia itself dropped out of the Soviet Union and then that was the end! And all of that was sort of like a process of what the writer Leonard Woolf called the "world revolt." This was the world revolt against the imperial powers.

Do you see this as a historical trend that's been building, these nonviolent revolutions?

Absolutely! It comes and it goes, but I do see it as a historical trend that's been building. I think people's war was sort of a halfway point, but the Soviet Union came down almost without warfare. It's an astounding thing, and I don't think we've looked at that enough. So I try to look at that and ask a question: What is it that permitted these local peoples to resist and defeat imperial domination?

And Mao and Ho Chi Minh gave an answer: They said, it's politics, it's revolutionary politics. It means if you win the hearts and minds of the people, then even if you're militarily weaker, you will have strength that will prevail at the end of the day – and they were right.

What are the various ingredients in a culture that enables it to successfully carry off nonviolent resistance, and do you think they exist in the U.S.?

They are a strong energetic will of millions of people to pursue what they believe in and the willingness to make sacrifices for that. That's above all. Does it exist in the U.S.? Not very much, but more than, let's say, six months ago.

You're referring to the peace movement..

The peace movement and the global justice movement. And as I have gone around I have detected a sort of seething anger – admittedly among a minority – about what's going on. I think there is a new energy out there that can be very powerful. You know, Margaret Mead said that a dedicated minority can change the world and nothing else ever has. And I believe that's true. I mean, you have to win over a majority, you have to speak to your fellow citizens who disagree with you, you have to persuade them, but if you don't have that dedicated minority to begin with, that's not going to happen.

So I think there are the stirrings of that. I think we possibly have the makings of that in this country, as we have in times past, like the civil rights movement, for example, so I think those are reasons for not despairing.

You must be alarmed at the way the Bush Administration is using military force to get its way in the world. If they continue down this path, what will happen? And what are our alternatives?

Well again, the principal theme of this book, which I was thinking about before there ever was a Bush Administration, is that in the long run it is not military power but political power, that triumphs. That's the lesson of people's war, that's the lesson of Solidarity in Poland, that's the lesson of Gandhi in India. In other words, if you actually want to run other countries, you have to do it on the ground. You can't pick up the garbage from 35,000 feet. A B-52 bomber cannot put the bandages on somebody's wound in a hospital. As somebody said to Napoleon, you can't mine coal with bayonets. So, even as the U.S. is triumphing militarily, it's losing politically – spectacularly!

Just with this one absurd war in which we can't even find the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to justify it, we seriously alienated the planet. The human species did not like what we did. You can measure this, you can look at opinion polls; this is not an historical detail, this is a major political fact with major political consequences for the future and for the present too. So I think that this really is a bid for a kind of military domination over the earth, I think it's bound to fail, which doesn't mean that we don't have to take it seriously. On the contrary, it can bring unimaginable destruction and mayhem, depending on how far it goes, including the use of nuclear weapons, either against the United States or by the United States or both. So it's an urgent matter to stop it sooner rather than later.

Along those lines, all the millions of people around the world and in the U.S. who opposed the war – how can we not lose the momentum of the peace movement in all its disparate parts, how can it become a viable force in U.S. politics?

You and I talked about this a little before [in Barcelona] and I think there are two aspects to it. We have to find the instrumentalities whereby we can exist in our own space; you're doing it here, with AlterNet. The development of independent media is not just key, it's absolutely essential, it's a condition of success. But just as this is going on, I think that in other spheres we need to create an activist base that can be sustained.

One idea that I've had is to gather something together that is quite visible and dramatic that puts the resistance movement on the map in an unmistakable way to the mainstream. One thought I have is to have a kind of American Porto Alegre. A conference that is a mass event, 100,000 people – or maybe two of them, one on each coast – that would consist of 1,000 seminars, 1,000 speeches, stalls, literature, networking like crazy, a huge scene. And maybe its theme would be against the empire and for democracy. Pro-democratic and anti-imperial. But above all, pro-democratic, that's the key. But real democracy, participation of the people, by the people, for the people. We have a tradition like this in the United States, it exists. There's a lot to draw on.

The second part is that we do have to go to the mainstream, we do have to persuade, we do have to get involved in electoral politics and there compromises will absolutely have to be made. We do have to make a noise in the mainstream media and change the mainstream media. So this is not a ghetto policy, I don't think there should be a sort of protest ghetto. The point is to exist in our own right so that we can influence the society at large.

It would be a mistake to choose between those two strategies; both are necessary, as I see it.

It's unfortunate that many on the left have rejected electoral politics.

Elections are a fabulous tool for bringing about change – if you use them! You have to infuse them with your energy. There's something tautological about rejecting elections. It's like an admission of defeat. It's very bad to admit defeat when you're in a movement. It's a big mistake. You should try to win! You may fail. There's no victory guaranteed in this world, in life. But you should aim to win and really change things.

I want to give you a chance to respond to critics who reject your vision of a nonviolent future and say that warfare is an essential tool in the foreign policy arsenal. In particular, this sentence from "The Unconquerable World" seems to have inflamed them: "The days when humanity can hope to save itself from force with force are over."

I don't want to be longwinded ... but that sentence is the summation of a long argument that I make. There actually are situations when I think force would be justified, for instance to stop a crime against humanity that is in progress, such as the genocide in Rwanda. In that case, I would have favored international intervention. So, I'm not an absolute pacifist.

But when I said that what I meant was, throughout history, there has been a sort of system whereby people have attempted to stop war by building up military forces. You know, there's the old Roman saying, "If you want peace prepare for war." And at the heart of that idea is the concept of balance. Now, sometimes that worked; very often it failed. It worked until 1914 [when World War I broke out] and then it pushed the world into an abyss. Nevertheless, it was a kind of strategy.

Then when nuclear weapons came along, it led to the nuclear balance of terror. Which was this mutually assured destruction thing. In which if anyone started anything, everyone would be blown up and they called that a balance. But now, even that nuclearized form of balance is being fatally undermined by nuclear proliferation. In other words, a balance of terror – which I always thought was a bad idea anyway – only works with two powers. It only has a chance of working with two powers, let me put it that way. With eight, 10, 12, 20 nuclear powers? No balance is possible. You cannot find an equilibrium.

All you have to do is imagine that three or four countries change sides – and history is full of that – and immediately the balance is upset. So when I say that we can't save ourselves from force with force, I'm very specifically saying that the idea of a balance of power, which has been the specific means by which people have tried to save themselves from force by force, is no longer workable in the age that looms ahead. It's a very specific point I'm making, it's not just a rhetorical flourish of some kind. So in that broad sense, I think we have to find some other bulwark of safety, which is a cooperate system of politics, not a coercive one.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Confidence that there is a better and more peaceful alternative that is both hopeful and practical than this path of escalating warfare that we seem to be on. In other words, a belief that if we turned away from this militarized path, there really is solid ground to set our foot on – if we would only decide to do so.

Tai Moses is a senior editor of AlterNet.

For more information about "The Unconquerable World" or to find out when Jonathan Schell is reading in your city, visit HenryHolt.com.

Dispatches from the Peace Movement

Yes, a Movement

There can be no doubt about it -- there is a peace movement. Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld and the armchair Chicken Hawks have provoked a full-fledged peace movement in just a few months, helped along greatly by the Internet.

In a funny way, the peace movement seems all there from 30 years ago; a lot grayer perhaps, yet filled in by a new generation of enthusiastic and playful young people. Even the sectarians looked the same, passing out leaflets, hawking their papers, which looked identical to those from 1970, except now, everyone has a Website. Street theater is alive and well, creative sign writing of high quality. In a funny way, at least in San Francisco, history seemed to have stood still.

--Don Hazen

Bombshells Not Bombs

We were near the head of the massive crowd of people, marching slowly down Market Street to the Civic Center, when I realized that something crucial was missing. “Give me your lipstick,” I said to Valerie, one of two girlfriends walking with me in Saturday’s antiwar demonstration in San Francisco. Valerie, Traci and I hiked up our shirts and drew peace signs around our bellybuttons with Valerie’s dark purple MAC lipstick (long-wearing, as it turns out -- it still hasn’t washed off). With a few strokes of color we had joined the spirit of the crowd -- what might be the largest peace march in SF since the Vietnam War.

We were walking in a sea of signs and placards: “No Blood For Oil” was the most common. Others read “Drop Bush, Not Bombs;” “Bush, The Moron With the War On;” “Regime Change Begins at Home” and “Bombshells Not Bombs” (the girl brandishing this sign was vamping for the crowd in a sexy cocktail dress). There were people carrying baguettes baked in the shape of peace signs; others pushing baby carriages and leading dogs.

Many of those present said they had never attended an antiwar rally before, or any other kind of rally, for that matter. Two teen-aged boys with mohawks and “Punks for Peace” emblazoned on their army jackets walked in solidarity with a group of elderly ladies toting a “Grannies Against the War” banner. There were several men in baseball caps with “Giants Fans for Peace” signs and a man with a sign that read “Bush Lies” had a long Pinocchio nose affixed to his face.

The legendary San Francisco fog cleared and the sun shone brightly, making it comfortable for those, like us, who had bare midriffs.

Crowd estimates vary (see "The Counting Game," below), but the march drew at least 40,000 to the streets of the city. The line of slowly walking marchers stretched more than a mile. Even when the rally at the Civic Center was well underway, walkers continued to pour into the plaza, making the speakers urge the crowd to make room for the newcomers. A line of police in riot gear stood at attention on the steps of the state building; other police cruised the perimeters, but this was a peaceful gathering, interested primarily in getting a single message across: that the American people do not want war in Iraq.

When one of the speakers called for a moment of silence in honor of Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane crash Friday, the wildly cheering and clapping crowd immediately quieted. Other speakers included Rep. Barbara Lee and actor Mike Farrell.
Speakers urged the media to point their cameras not at them but out at the full panorama of the crowd and to honestly portray the numbers present. "The news media won't be able to say 'Only a few hundred showed up,' " said one speaker.

On our way back to the East Bay that afternoon, crowds thronged the BART station, overtaxing the system, so station managers opened the turnstiles and let thousands of protesters ride for free. “BART for peace,” cried Valerie, as we boarded the peace train for home.

--Tai Moses

Media Coverage

Even the Washington Post recognized the presence of a new peace movement. The lead graph in its Sunday story read: “Tens of thousands of people marched in peaceful protest of any military strike against Iraq yesterday afternoon, in an antiwar demonstration that organizers and police suggested was likely Washington's largest since the Vietnam era.”

And the article gave the day a broad international flavor: “Demonstrations in other cities, including Rome, Berlin, Copenhagen, Denmark, Tokyo and Mexico City, were held to coincide with the Washington march, and in San Francisco, thousands marched through downtown.”

The flavor of the D.C protest projected by the media was one of inclusion. They even reported that the message was clear: "Protesters arrived by the busload, by car and by Metro early yesterday morning, some carrying signs and later joining in chants that echoed a common theme: A war against Iraq would be unjustified, and there is no consensus for it.”

Google News had articles from hundreds of newspapers across the country and text from dozens of TV stations. The one exception to the generally fair coverage was the New York Times, burying a very short story inside with a cranky lead that said that fewer people attended the demonstration than organizers expected. There is a long history of the Times disdaining peace protests -- hard to know exactly why.

--Don Hazen

The Counting Game

One of the most vexing elements of organizing and attending demonstrations is that often their success or failure is measured by the numbers game -- the competing estimates of how many people attend. Months of work and many thousands of peoples’ spirits have often been deflated because a cynical writer at, say, the New York Times -- as happened this year -- throws cold water on the parade.

So on Saturday I decided to take matters in my own hands. I was going to have my own count at the San Francisco demo just to see what the numbers game was about. I had heard that attempts to measure crowds depend on how many blocks they fill, or how long they take to pass a certain point. But those methods seemed less than accurate.

My system was simple. I stood at the beginning of the parade and counted that it took 25 people across to make one line. While a line rarely stayed as straight as those at the beginning, it became pretty easy to bunch a wiggly line or a couple of small groups into 25. So I started counting how many times 25 people passed me. Every so often I did a hard check of my grouping to see how accurate it was -- it usually came within two or three people either way.

The results? Standing at a fixed point at the beginning of the march, I counted an estimated 31,000 people. Given that the system could have been 10-20 percent inaccurate and given that other people joined the march along the way or showed up at the Civic Center, I calculated that the number probably was around 40,000, which is a very large collection of people. The march seemed to take forever to pass by me and stretched far down Market Street.

How did my numbers jibe with other estimates? The San Francisco Chronicle reported that official estimates said 42,000, while organizers claimed 80,000. I'm sorry to report that using my admittedly less than scientific method, my numbers were very much in sync with official estimates. There’s no way 80,000 people could have been at this march; not even close. The rosiest estimate that could be attached to the demo may have approached 50,000 but that would have been a stretch. And my memory of the march against the earlier Gulf War, 11 years ago (when I bought my "No Blood for Oil" sweatshirt, pulled out of my closet that morning in practically mint condition) was that it was slightly larger. I recall the numbers thrown around then to be 50,000.

The main point was this was a wonderful demonstration -- hugely attended, conducted with great spirit and imagination, and quite diverse by many measures. So why worry too much about the numbers game?

--Don Hazen

Don Hazen and Tai Moses are, respectively, executive editor and managing editor of AlterNet.org.

The Rebirth of Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye

What's going on? All of a sudden Marvin Gaye is everywhere. A-list stars crank out tribute albums covering the soul singer's greatest hits, Grammy-winning musicians acknowledge his influence, and his former label, Motown, regularly re-issues special editions of his classic records. He even had a hit with Erick Sermon, whose duet "Music" featured Gaye's overlapping, sampled voice.

Not bad for a singer who's been dead 18 years.

I am grateful that Marvin Gaye is with us again, but for me, as for millions of people who still buy his records, he never really went away. Even today, listening to certain Marvin Gaye songs, I feel a weight in my chest, as if gravity has suddenly increased its pull in the region of my heart. Perhaps that is heartache, or the memory of its physical shape. It's always bittersweet; Marvin can do that to you.

Author Steve Erickson once wrote that the great American novels of the 20th century could be found in the music of artists like Springsteen, Dylan, Chuck Berry and Marvin Gaye. And Gaye, who was murdered on April 1, 1984, the day before his 45th birthday, was a brilliant storyteller. He had a genius for using his voice to explore and telegraph infectious grooves, smoky sensuality or, in the case of his 1971 self-produced masterpiece, What's Going On, compassion and concern.

Musically elegant and politically radical, What's Going On was entirely unlike the bright, buoyant music coming off the Motown assembly line. It was the first album created by a black artist that addressed the social upheaval of America at the end of the 1960s: the Vietnam War, race riots, unemployment and poverty in the inner city, pollution, the assassinations of beloved leaders. The songs take the point of view of a Vietnam vet -- specifically, Marvin's brother Frankie, who returned from the war with stories that horrified Marvin and kindled his social conscience. Frankie, in a sense, is the album's narrator, but it is a spiritual self-portrait of Marvin Gaye.

For me, What's Going On conjures up a newsreel of my childhood, the events of a decade oddly compressed.

My best friend's brother, Bobby J, had just come back from Vietnam. Many others in our predominantly Latino neighborhood had not. The war flickered across our television screen nightly and Walter Cronkite grew old before our eyes, reciting the body count. My father watched with tears rolling down his cheeks and he cursed Lyndon Johnson. "Hey Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" we chanted at peace marches.

The images remain indistinct to me, just vague outlines. The music fills in the color, adds emotional truth. In a seamless, 35-minute-long song cycle, Marvin Gaye articulated the country's shock and disbelief, asked the question everyone was asking. He depicted the crises of the day vividly, but without hostility or rancor. As Gaye chronicler Ben Edmonds observed, "the lyric expresses extreme hurt and anger, yet the song never gives in to either."

War and Peace

It's a quirk of fate that art born of rage and hatred rarely stand the test of time. The human soul seeks reconciliation; thus, more than 30 years after its release, record stores still have trouble keeping What's Going On in stock. The title song is one of our culture's most indelible anti-war anthems. The other, of course, is John Lennon's great "Imagine," which was also released in 1971. Lennon envisioned the possibilities of a world at peace; Gaye looked unflinchingly at the ugliest realities of society and asked how things got so bad. Neither song ever seems to get dated (war, after all, hasn't gone out of style).

"He's our John Lennon," Janet Jackson once said of Marvin Gaye. Yet remembering Gaye is not like remembering Lennon. At the time of his death, Lennon had made peace with his private demons and with the fanatical spiral of his celebrity. He had matured as an artist and as a man. The week Lennon was killed, a grieving Michael Ventura wrote in the L.A. Weekly of the irony that John Lennon, like Malcolm X, "was only shot after he had conquered the violence in himself."

Unlike the former Beatle, Marvin Gaye was a tremendously conflicted performer who died before he had a chance to quiet the commotion in his life and the violence in himself. He had an increasingly out-of-control cocaine addiction. Both his marriages had unraveled. He was a superstar frightened of fame; a hitmaker who longed to be considered an artist. Deeply religious, he was ambivalent about his status as a sex symbol and even talked of becoming a monk, yet he created some of the loveliest and most erotic songs in pop music. Most painful of all was his unresolved conflict with his father, a retired Pentecostal minister. It wasn't for nothing that David Ritz titled his biography of Gaye "Divided Soul."

Perhaps his troubled character is one reason why What's Going On echoes with such pathos. We miss John Lennon; we mourn Marvin Gaye. It's not only that the conversation is left unfinished -- that's the case with every death -- it's that the man himself was left unfinished, incomplete. We never got to see if he could embody the integrity of What's Going On -- to see if the minister's son could practice what he preached.

After the Dancing

It's 1978 and "Let's Get It On" is still on the radio and our lips. Things have changed -- the groove is sensual, the boundaries exploded open. For some of us who grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War, love and sex will always be inextricably linked with death. "You live as if there's no tomorrow," complain the adults, although they should know better, having been there too. Marvin's voice conveys such passionate yearning it makes our skin hunger after contact. We're all sensitive people with so much to give.

But it wasn't just sex he was singing about, it was human sympathy, it was the sweet shelter of physical tenderness. In 1971, he told us love could repair the world; now he promised that love could repair our souls. We just needed to get on with it and get it on. Seduced and seductive, we dance and shimmy. Is it even possible to feel sexy without Marvin singing in the background?

Then comes 1984 and it ends with a gunshot. It is always a gunshot. It's barely spring and still cold. I'm barefoot in the kitchen making tea and my face is wet with tears because my housemate has stacked all our Marvin Gaye albums on the record player and one by one they drop onto the turntable and the drafty old house fills with his silky voice. Talk to me, I'll talk to you.

A bitter argument fueled by paranoia and aggression, ending with two rounds fired from a .38 caliber handgun. Murdered by his father! we repeat in shock. A sordid way to die. Yet, deep down, didn't we always suspect that our own families could kill us?

I think that was when the emotional color began to drain out of American life; when people started to regard the ideals and the struggles of the '60s with scorn. Maybe it started with Reagan's election in 1980 and John Lennon's murder the same year. Either way, the vibe turned cynical. We pontificate and analyze and criticize, and every day the world ends a little more.

Nuthin' Neo About It

Still, soul is back, and Marvin Gaye is largely responsible for its resurgence. What's Going On has inspired scores of artists, from Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones to Sade, Michael Franti and Ryan Toby, lead singer of the trio City High. Traces of the album can be heard in the music of Steely Dan, Prince and dozens of others.

And soul music seems to be recovering some of its conscience, rejecting gangsta poses in favor of positivity and social commentary. I can't help but give Marvin some of the credit for that. People who weren't even born when the record came out are listening to it and absorbing its collective memories.

Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times that Alicia Keys was electrified when she heard What's Going On for the first time. "It just hit me like a rock over the head," she said. "I had never heard a body of music like that, so in tune with people and reality and consciousness, socially and politically and in love with stillness and then turmoil. It was like everything that you ever have felt at one point or another all in one, bam!"

Keys and her contemporaries, Macy Gray, Jill Scott, Angie Stone and Erykah Badu, are well aware of their musical debt to Gaye. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Keys and India.Arie were asked what they thought of the term "neo-soul" being used to market their music. They roundly dissed it.

"It makes it sound like we are a new version of something old," said India.Arie. "We're just a continuation of a legacy, not a copy or a throwback." Arie pays loving homage to her roots on her album, Acoustic Soul: "This is in remembrance of our ancestors / Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway / and all that came before / you opened up a door / 'cause of you, change gonna come."

Tributes and Tribulations

The latest Marvin Gaye tribute, also entitled What's Going On, is a benefit for the Global AIDS Alliance and the Sept. 11 Fund. It was recorded in New York by an all-star cast a week before the World Trade Center attacks. Like the album that inspired it, the 2001 What's Going On has nine tracks, but they are nine different remixes of the same song. It's an interesting concept that gets a little tired after a couple of listens. And some of the versions have a combative, in-your-face quality that Gaye instinctively steered clear of, believing that the artistry would inspire the activism.

I admit, I found it unsettling to hear former Mousketeer Britney Spears crooning "Barricades can't block our way" and the Backstreet Boys' sugary rendition of "You see war is not the answer" was just as jarring. Truly, things ain't what they used to be. But activist Leigh Blake, who initiated the project, said that all the artists involved, no matter what their backgrounds, understood the significance of the lyrics.

"'N Sync -- who thought they'd know anything?" she told Jesse Kornbluth, who covered the recording session for Salon.com. "But Justin really got it. So did Britney, so did Alicia Keys. People did their parts and cried."

The ability to move people on a deep emotional level was Gaye's gift. Happily, he passed it on to his daughter Nona Gaye, whose achingly familiar voice can also be heard on the CD: Oh my father, father, we don't need to escalate.

We can memorialize the day of Gaye's death on April 1, or we can celebrate the day of his birth on April 2. His duality continues to unfold and his hopeful manifesto continues to communicate to new generations. What's Going On was the first album out of Motown to include the printed lyrics of the songs in the album liner. Marvin Gaye had something to say and he wanted to make sure people got the message. Thirty-one years later, we're still getting it.

Tai Moses is the editor of the Metro Santa Cruz and writes frequently for AlterNet.org.

Some Like It Hot

When Chelsea Cawley sets her tongue on fire, people watch with rapt attention. Holding a small, homemade torch in each hand, the 26-year-old opens her mouth wide and touches the end of one torch lightly to her tongue, blotting it with a coating of fuel.

With the torch in the other hand, she sets her tongue ablaze and sticks the flaming appendage out as far as she can. Some people in the audience scream, others cheer her on, but the majority just watch, spellbound, their own mouths hanging open.

"Chicks with fire," Chelsea says with a laugh, explaining the phenomenon. "It's just kind of a soft spot for a lot of people."

Chelsea, who performs under the stage name Jewn, has been fire dancing for five years. The flaming tongue feat is the highlight of an act that includes fire chains, fire-swallowing and "body lights," in which she drags a lit torch across her stomach, arms and back. Excess fuel from the torch is transferred onto her skin igniting it dramatically and, it must be said, erotically.

"The whole thing is pretty sexual, especially the fire swallowing and the body lights," she says. "It's a primal thing -- plus, I've got some pretty big tattoos and stuff."

Chelsea's fire routine, performed with a backdrop of deafening live music, is a world away from old-time fire entertainers like the legendary Barnello the Fire King, who also went by the names the Human Volcano and the Living Gas Jet. In Barnello's day, fire acts were the strict province of the carnival. Today, fire breathing and eating have emerged from the sideshow and, in the space of a handful of years, become a counterculture fad in which nearly anyone can -- and does -- participate.

If Barnello were to stroll by on a clear, windless Sunday night, he'd be amazed to see a spectacle of illuminated dance: people rhythmically spinning miniature meteors of fire that etch spectacular designs into the night; a fire breather spewing a 10-foot-long plume of orange flame; a dreadlocked dancer gracefully twirling a long staff, its ends ablaze. And not a circus tent in sight.

As a hobby, performance art or form of incendiary meditation, fire dancing is spreading worldwide, with a heated concentration on the United States' West Coast. Professional burn troupes Pyrogeist and Seeds of Fire make their home in the San Francisco Bay Area while Seattle boasts Cirque de Flambé and Thermogenesis. Hundreds of unaffiliated fire enthusiasts practice their art at parks and beaches, musical events, raves and festivals.

The most popular activity is fire spinning, also called poi, from the Maori word for ball (poi balls, sans fire, are an implement used in traditional Maori dance). Fire spinners swing two lengths of chain or cable with wicks attached to each end around their bodies. The pastime has caught on so fast that Seattle's famed Pyro Boy, Wally Glenn, dubbed it "the yo-yo of the new millennium."

"It really picked up two years ago," says Tom Kidwell, founding genius of juggling supply company Renegade Juggling. "We call them fire pixies," Kidwell says; "usually they're tattooed, pierced."

Renegade is headquartered in Santa Cruz, Calif. but supplies performers and hobbyists worldwide through its website, www.renegadejuggling.com. Kidwell says he's significantly expanded fire inventory in response to demand, doing a brisk trade in props like fire cables, fire staffs and dance torches -- which come with detailed fire safety information, dire warnings and recommendations for fire retardant jumpsuits.

Sparking a Trend

There's a good reason why we are instructed to yell "Fire" rather than "Help" when our lives are in peril. Fire is an attractor, a nearly narcotic visual force laden with potent symbolism. Combined with music and motion, it creates a dramatic, mesmerizing vision. Spectators can't take their eyes off those fiery orbs, licking brilliant tongues through the darkness, the intense heat and flame just inches away from scorching human flesh.

Fire enthusiasts tout both the addictive properties of the art form and the awe it inspires in audiences.

"You could light a newspaper on fire and people would watch it," Chelsea says. "Even if I put on a bad show people are still going to scream; they just want to see fire."

Spinning, says poi baller and fire breather Raven, "is a very personal art." Everyone learns a set of basic moves and then adds their own unique twist. A group of fire spinners may use similar equipment but end up with wildly varying styles.

"We're all fire performers," Raven says. "Any fire performer is someone who's playing with fire, whether it's poi, fire breathing, clubs, etc. I've seen some things that don't even fit into those categories. Some performers I've known have attached wicking to the ends of two [fencing] foils. I've seen people who have converted chain whips, a 10-foot-long rope with knives on the end -- I guess you'd have to call that a fire bolo."

Nearly every fire dancer I talked to shared the experience of having a pyrotechnic epiphany at their first encounter with fire art; like the lightening bolt seared into Harry Potter's forehead. The thrill of getting intimate with your own personal inferno, of harnessing an energy both demonic and divine, creative and destructive, is irresistible for some. Fire spinners also say they feel a tribal link to cultures that have incorporated the manipulation of fire in their rituals and dances for thousands of years.

For fire performer Kai, who first saw a girl spinning fire at a music festival, the experience was like being kicked in the heart by a mule.

"I was just so hypnotized and amazed by this woman -- suddenly she was a goddess, she wasn't even a woman any more."

Kai and her boyfriend, Majinga the Magician (who eats fire from the tip of a sword), do fire routines with Magique Bazaar, a performance troupe based near San Francisco.

"For me it's about the spiritual aspect; it's the cosmos," Kai says. "From the moment I saw these fire balls spinning around all I could think of were planets and stars."

Light It Up

The answering machine at Crimson Rose's Oakland home says, "I'm either away from my desk burning something or I'm talking to someone else."

Crimson is the fire performance director for Nevada's annual Burning Man festival, and also holds the exalted title of Naked Fire Goddess.

She confirms what many have already told me: the spark that kindled the fire performer subculture flew straight from the venerable feet of the Man himself. There were approximately 50 fire performers out in the desert in 1998; a scant two years later, Burning Man 2000 drew more than 500 fire dancers.

"When I started 20 years ago, very few people were playing with fire," Crimson says. "Now I'm starting to see hula hoops with fire, stilts on fire, fire fingers -- wires attached to the fingers that become extensions of the hands. The fire performers feed off each other."

The attraction to fire, says Crimson, is very simple: "Mom said: Don't play with fire."

Despite Mom's, or anyone else's warnings, the Naked Fire Goddess herself enjoys actual contact with the flame.

"I handle it, I put it on my body. I'll have a bowl of fire that has rubbing alcohol in it, I'll get my fingers wet, so I can literally pull off a flame from the fire. I'll torch my torso and neck. It's a very empowering feeling, which is what drew me to it. I almost feel like I'm being manipulated by the fire."

There's a memorable scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which the young Lawrence casually snuffs out a lit match with his bare fingers. When a comrade attempts the trick and winces in pained surprise, the unflappable Lawrence replies, "Certainly it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts."

Marcus Aurelius himself would find it hard to top the stoic attitude fire dancers embrace to bear the stings and burning arrows of their art.

Chelsea says her body lights routine "burns a little bit, but there's no marks or anything. It's tolerable, it's not that bad really." What about that flaming tongue? "It's pretty quick. And if I want to put it out I just put my tongue back in my mouth."

"You get burned and singed now and then," Raven says bravely. "It's sort of payment for doing the art."

And more and more people are anteing up to pay the piper.

"The fire community has been growing by leaps and bounds," Raven says. "We are a culture, we are a force, and we will only grow."

"I hear things like 'fire performers are so sexy that I want to learn how to do it,'" Crimson says.

Experienced fire dancers worry that overexposure will ruin what they see as a meditative spiritual exercise that demands respect and healthy fear from practitioners.

"Somewhere along the line some respect for the art has gotten lost, cause they haven't really had to earn it," says Chelsea. "It's getting out of control."

Fanning the Flames

With the ranks of new fire warriors swelling, there are also signs that a few may be taking unwarranted risks.

"There's a great concern from people that have been in it for a while to make sure that people play safely," says Crimson. "I've seen extremes from the newbies that are trying to do it really fast, to the people trying to develop their own style and repertoire."

Benjamin Mack, author of Fire Eating: A Manual of Instruction, maintains that fire eating is so inherently dangerous that the first tip he offers in his book is, "Try sword swallowing. The swords taste better and you don't have to worry about the wind."

"A lot of these fire dancers don't realize they can't go out there solo, they have to have a fire extinguisher, a blanket, you really do need someone to train you," says Kai, adding that she practiced for a year before even lighting up her fire props. "I've heard some really gruesome stories about people lighting their faces on fire. You are playing with fire and it requires a certain amount of fabulous respect paid to the fire gods."

Chelsea also errs on the side of caution.

"You think you know what you're doing and then you light them on fire and you forget everything you thought you knew," she recalls of her first experience lighting up. "It sounds like a roaring fire and it's very intimidating when you first start out.

"I saw one girl, she did it with her hair down, she was totally plastered drunk. I was trying to convince her not to do it, that she should at least tie her hair back. She just dumped some charcoal lighter -- fuel is a whole other debate -- and went for it. It took a lot of honor out of it. I found out that girl is getting high-paying shows on yacht parties."

"If you play with fire you're going to get burned," says Crimson, "and I think it's very appropriate -- hopefully it's enough that it's going to wake you up. It's not about control, it's about manipulation; anybody that thinks they can control the flame will get burned really bad."

But many spinners do believe they can control the flames. A poll conducted by the website Home of Poi and Fire Twirling (www.homeofpoi.com) shows that fire dancers are nearly equally divided on the issue. More than 43 percent of the poll's 148 respondents agreed with the statement, "We can control fire."

"I am holding in my hands the possibility of endangering someone else, of burning the place down if worse comes to worst," Chelsea says. "The possibilities are endless, if something goes wrong. You have to have a straight head on your shoulders. If I do it at raves people are out of their mind. I had one guy come at me; he wasn't listening to reason. You have to realize that this is a risk that you're taking."

But when all goes well (as it usually does), and fire spinners get into the groove, fire performances can bring about a trancelike state in both performer and audience.

"It's a trade; I get respect," Chelsea says, adding proudly, "Crowds will part after you're done."

"There's something very religious and meditative about spinning fire," says Raven, "because if you start thinking about what you're doing you're going to start hitting yourself. When you start forcing it, you start making mistakes."

"In my experience," Kai says, "there are two kinds of fire dancers out there, two attitudes. One is the performers: most get paid; they have put together an actual fire act, with showmanship. The other kind of fire dancer are people are who just into doing it for the meditation, it's not for the audience."

Raven believes that the fire performance movement is heading toward what he calls "an environmental theater ideal, in which the most heartfelt performances by fire dancers are the ones that are done out on the street, out in the world, not caring if one person is watching or 1,000 people."

The penchant for pyromancy has given way to increasingly imaginative and bizarre forms, as performers push the edge, trying to top themselves and each other in their quest for flammable fun.

Even the Naked Fire Goddess, who's seen it all -- including a woman in a wheelchair spinning poi -- is still capable of being awed by a new incendiary trick; for instance, the Seattle troupe Magmavox.

"They do a routine where they're back to back, blindfolded and spinning poi, and the look on their face is one of pure delight," Crimson Rose says. "That is the wildest thing I've seen."

My So-Called Marriage

For a long time after my parents' divorce, I wondered what my mother did with her wedding ring. One day it just vanished from her finger. I suppose she might have tossed it into a dresser drawer or donated it to the Salvation Army. She might have thrown it into the sea. I took my own wedding ring off shortly after my husband and I separated, in 1997, but it was a while before I lost that reflexive pang of alarm at the sight of the naked finger.

The young married women in the new anthology "Young Wives' Tales" are not worried about rings. They're too busy altering the label of wife to fit -- snipping, tucking, letting hems out, embroidering here, embellishing there. Marilyn Yalom discovered the same radical transformations in "A History of the Wife," in which she charts the evolution of the American wife through the centuries, concluding with a chapter titled "Toward the New Wife."

I like all these daring young wives on their matrimonial trapezes. I wish I'd known some of them when I was married because, presented with the raw material of wifehood, I ended up with a Frankensteinian creation I hardly recognize in hindsight.

We were married in the dog days of August. The ceremony took place outside on a narrow wooden footbridge that spanned a creek at an old resort. We liked the symbolism of crossing from one life to the next -- we didn't consider that bridges buckle in high winds and wash out in floods. And surely we should have known better than to get married at a place called White Sulphur Springs, consigning us to a perpetual, sulfurous August of the soul.

There are artifacts. A receipt for $45 from the county clerk's office for the marriage license. A crumpled note left that day for a visiting friend: Out getting marriage license, back soon. PS: Please don't let cat out.

We decided that we would not have one of those artificially festive affairs intended to appease family and friends. Our wedding would be intimate, poetic, unique. We talked a lot about the wedding, but the conversations never included our hopes and expectations for the marriage itself. We invited four of our closest friends; we crossed our bridge, we made our toasts. Then the best man tied a can onto the back of the car, and we drove away, wedlocked.

My passage into married life, however, did not go smoothly. Almost instantly, I began to mutate into the version of wife most alien to my personality -- a retro-wife. I planted flowers. I took an inordinate interest in window coverings. I cleaned house madly; people often commented on how spotless our house was. And I hardly ever wrote.

Who was this creature? She was certainly not my mother, a self-reliant woman who had raised three kids while holding down a full-time job. I was living the wrong life, with the wrong person, but I didn't know that yet. My unconscious knew it though and tried to tell me with an insistent parade of nighttime images. I dreamed my wedding band was made of glass, that it fell down a mine shaft, that it was too big and kept slipping off my finger. In the most preposterous, and obvious, dream of all, I was at a theater where a terrible play was being performed. The actors, one of whom was my husband, kept flubbing their lines, so impulsively I decided to rescue them. I threw on an ill-fitting wedding gown, tossed a veil over my head, grabbed a bunch of flowers from a nearby vase and leapt onstage. Quick thinking! someone yelled, and the audience cheered.

My husband did his best to pretend that all was well. He cleaned out the rain gutters. He bought a weedeater. He did all of this with self-conscious awareness of his new role, or what he thought his new role should be. He was as confused as I was. Neither of us knew -- how could we? -- that you had to consciously reinvent these roles or you would wind up wearing the threadbare hand-me-downs of previous generations.

I began to read all the 19th-century novels I had never had the time or the inclination to read before. Most featured women suffocating in meaningless marriages. "Why should one fall into marriage so quickly, as into an abyss suddenly yawning before one's feet?" Guy De Maupassant asked, in his short story "A Woman's Life." I wept when Anna Karenina threw herself under the train, when Jane Eyre left Rochester (and when she returned to him) and when I encountered this passage in George Eliot's "The Mill on the Floss":

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