James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, June 01, 2007

Flying, the (way) downside of travel

Time now, before sinking all the way back into the murk and mire of U.S. domestic politics and international piracy, to talk about the act of travel.

Not the joys of being somewhere other than where you live, or of discovering other cultures and seeing new beauties, but the miseries involved in getting from one place to another, distant, place.

Between the airlines and our corporation-dominated Bushy/Republicrat government, the pain of travel has grown far worse in recent years.

Well, OK, that does involve politics, but it can't be helped. Under King George, there is no aspect of life in this country that has not been politicized.

I have been to Europe twice in the last two months. And, yes, I am greatly privileged to be able to say that, even though I am a successful travel bargain hunter, and my wife and I have made choices about discretionary spending that are different from those of many middle class Americans.

The first trip, in April, was a very quick one to France, where a long-time friend and I joined a tour of World War II D-Day invasion sites. It was enlightening, it was moving, and the getting to and from was so miserable I would not do it again unless I extended my stay in France by at least a week to make the misery more worthwhile.

We flew separately to Chicago, where we met and gave ourselves over to Lufthansa to get us from Chicago to Frankfurt, and thence to Paris.

I was late meeting my buddy, because my bags took a very, very long time to show up in Chicago, despite the fact that my Sun Country flight between here and there was nonstop. It was OK, though. His Northwest flight was late, so he didn't have to wait long for me.

Security checks in Chicago were time-consuming and as absurd as usual, with the snide and ill-tempered “security” people moving with exaggerated slowness, just to show who's boss.

Anybody who wanted to do evil but couldn't get the necessary tools past an airport check point is too stupid to breathe and walk at the same time. I do not believe those who want to harm us are that stupid.

(I realize that saying these things in public may put me on a watch list and make future travel even more difficult, but they have to be said. Airport “security” is a con job, designed to make the naïve believe they're safe, and to add considerable sums to the profits of large corporations that make major contributions to Bush & Co. Also to provide a very rich data mine for the administration, but more on that later.)

Lufthansa once was a quality airline. My experiences on its planes some 10 or 12 years ago were much better than we could get then on U.S. airlines. The food was better, the service, especially on the ground, was better and the seats and cabins more comfortable.

Now, sadly, Lufthansa provides a “service” that could deter the average person from ever flying again. It was, my old pal said halfway across the Atlantic, “sheer torture.”

I'm short, and I was feeling cramped and claustrophobic long before we hit the halfway point. My friend is of average height – five feet nine or ten inches tall. The woman seated ahead of him put her seat as far back as it would go immediately after takeoff and didn't move it forward until just before landing in Frankfurt. The space between his chest and the back of her seat was 10 inches.

Getting out of one's seat to go stand in line for the toilets required painful contortions. Eating was awkward and spills almost inevitable. We both felt like claustrophobes locked in a closet.

The plane from Frankfurt to Paris was much more spacious and comfortable, though a much smaller aircraft. Maybe they make the transAtlantic flights painful to make us Yanks feel at home.

Our return trips (he stayed longer, so we came back separately) were exactly the same, other than in direction.

First class and “business” class were roomy and service was great, of course. Those people pay five or six times what we coach passengers pay. That's the excuse for the abuse we take.

But, wait. Could they fly those planes with only the people in first and business classes as passengers? I very much doubt it. The upper class cabins are rarely full, but even if they were, I don't think they could afford to cross the Atlantic if we, the abused, weren't providing the airline tens of thousands of dollars on each flight.

Well...On to the second trip.

My wife and I generally avoid Northwest Airlines – Northworst as it is known to members of my family -- if it is possible to get where we're going on any other carrier. We hadn't flown the locally-based gouger airline for years, but sadly, with it's near-monopoly in the Twin Cities, it had the only flight that made any sense for us between here and New York, where we caught a British Airways flight to London and another from there to Budapest.

Our Northworst flight was held on the apron for almost four hours before it took off.

Why? Because traffic at JFK Airport in New York was too heavy, we were told, so flights heading there from other U.S. cities were ordered to stay on the ground.

Note: Our Northworst flight was a regularly scheduled flight. It leaves the Twin Cities at the same time every bloody day. Same goes for most or all the other flights around the country that were held up for hours. There were no weather problems in New York.

That, friends, means that the people scheduling flights, and scheduling landings and takeoffs at JFK, are bloody incompetent fools. If you can't land the damned planes, you shouldn't be scheduling the damned flights.

But that is the U.S. airlines business today. Gouge, cheat and screw the passengers; it's an unregulated con game.

Being so late caused a chain reaction, of course. As soon as we got to New York, we had to parlay with the folks at the British Airways counter for a new flight for London. The plane we were booked for already was in the air when we got to New York. We did OK on that, but were told we had to wait until we got to London before we could confirm our new flight from there to Budapest.

There was, shall we say, a degree of anxiety involved.

The people of B.A. Were far more friendly and efficient than we are used to with American airline service people, however, and we did all right, though it took 22 hours from the time he hit the airport in Minneapolis to reach Budapest -- five or six hours longer than scheduled. No sleep, lousy food eaten on the fly (so to speak), tired, dirty and shockingly overcharged at every airport for everything. Of course, no compensation offered or expected from Northworst.

Still, British Airways was considerably better than Lufthansa: Slightly more room per passenger, more comfortable seats and much better service. The real misery of cramped flying and lousy air to breathe didn't hit until we were only two or three hours from London.

Our return flights were much less eventful, thankfully.

But: Airport security, a bad joke everywhere, is horrendous in New York.

We stayed over one night in New York, and arrived at JFK in plenty of time for our flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul. We gave them more than the generally recommended time, in fact.


Our plane and just one other were leaving at approximately the same time from a short concourse at JFK. The Transport Security Administration (TSA) had just one security lane open. One X-ray machine for people, one for bags and pocket contents, one line for the several hundred passengers of the two flights.

It quickly became obvious that if nothing changed, at least 100 of us would miss our flights. A private security outfit was charged with handling the crowds outside the doors to that one functioning security check point. The poor security people took a little abuse, and then a great deal of abuse, and explained over and over that they had nothing to do with TSA and could do nothing about the situation.

Finally, however, one of the security company folks, close to panic, got on a cell phone, called the TSA office at the airport and pleaded that something be done before a nasty situation turned physical – which was very close to happening. Really. People were shouting, one guy started to reach for one of the security people once, but was barely dissuaded by others, and folks were threatening to rush the TSA checkpoint.

Here I should note that there actually was another lane held open by TSA. It was the lane reserved for frequent fliers who sign up for what currently is called the Clear Registered Traveler program.

Under that program, people who pay a fee of $99.95 (priced just like a toaster oven, you'll note...not $100) and who submit to a whole lot of privacy invasion can skip the regular security lines and go right to their flights. The price, by the way, is expected to rise annually, but you can lock in your price by paying for two or three years at a time.

So far, the program is in place in only a few airports, but the system -- and the nasty games to get you to join -- will spread soon to a city near you.

People who pay the fee and allow government snooping into their lives receive a “clear card,” which is read by a computer and matched with the passenger. Matched by biometric data such as fingerprints and iris imaging. To get the card, they must allow invasive background checks, similar to the checks made for security clearances, though presumably not as extensive. A gold mine for the enthusiastic domestic spies of the Bush administration.

There was no question in any passenger's mind the day we flew home from New York that the unconscionable squeeze at security, while the fast lane sat empty, was a deliberate attempt to push people into submitting to the background checks and the rest of the invasive snooping in order to get a free pass through security for future flights.

So. While the rest of us were sweating out the wait for the one security checkpoint, three TSA employees were in charge of the fast lane. Two, a man and a woman, chatted and flirted all the time we were stomping and waiting. The third dozed in a chair for at least the 20 minutes to half hour or so that she was within my sight. Not one passenger entered the concourse via that route.

Finally, and barely in time to allow us to make our flight, TSA sent a couple of other people in and snared one or two of those who were doing nothing at the fast lane and opened a second check point.

Our flight left on time, though it would have left many of us behind had the second checkpoint not opened. The other one, an international flight carrying folks on their way to Africa, was held at the gate on demand of its passengers until all could board. Since we left on time, I don't know how long it was held.

As someone who flies with some frequency, I have to tell you that such adventures now are the norm. If you have a nonstop domestic flight, you may leave and arrive on time, and get your baggage, too. It's maybe a 60-40 shot in your favor, at a guess. If you have connecting flights and, especially, if you're on an international trip, all bets are off. You throws the dice and takes yer chances.

(Monthly on-time reports, and statistics about lost baggage, sometimes published in newspapers, are essentially lies, but that's another story.)

The airlines now mostly have done their phony bankruptcy dances, music provided by right-wing judges put in place to make sure that corporations can stomp on their employees with only minimum fuss.

Northworst, as one miserable example, just emerged from a well-planned bankruptcy having cuts its employees' pay to the point that cabin attendants with only a few years experience actually make less than full-time fast food servers, and some pilots make about as much as city bus drivers. It also canned a bunch of mechanics and shipped their jobs to China.

As the airline was freed from its convenient bankruptcy, Northworst's chairman, Doug Steenland, was rewarded with a stock package worth $26.6 million over the next four years and other execs also got financial gifts the size of many employees' lifetime earnings. Some huge guaranteed pension programs also were tied up in pretty ribbons for them. And that's in addition to their salaries.

Some of you, being clever people, are thinking that being so close to Canada, it might save some pain to drive up there and fly from Winnipeg or maybe Ottawa to Europe or Asia.

Sorry. Tried that a few years ago. It's a long story, too, so just take my word for it: The U.S. government, in the form of U.S. Customs, has found a way to make a hell of re-entry to this country from another foreign country through Canada.

The public has been screwed. Again.

It is the way of American business these days, when you get right down to it. The airlines, with full cooperation from "our" government, simply are more open than most others about their complete disdain for the people whose pockets they pick.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Eating BLTs in Prague

For decades, travel writers advised Americans heading abroad to leave their bluejeans at home. Jeans quickly mark you, even at a distance, as an American, they said, and that makes you a target for hustlers.

Now it's really easy to identify Americans in Europe.

We're the only travelers not wearing jeans.

Hustlers don't care whether you're American or Japanese, anyway, of course.

It's true that in some cases you can tell the Europeans and Asians from Americans even should one of us actually wear that universal blue garment. European jeans tend to have subtle or not-so-subtle vertical stripes in their fabric, and some worn by the young have really odd dye jobs such as phony, highly contrasting “fade” patches on each cheek and at the knees, or maybe perfect ovals just on the front of the thighs.

You can't count on that for identification, though. During a recent three weeks in central Europe, I also saw Teutonic hordes and what might have been the entire populations of certain Milanese neighborhoods wearing Levis.

If you're going to Europe and want to avoid quick identification as a citizen of the United States – a rational desire – wear your American jeans as well as your Canadian flag pin.

That way it might take the average native of the places you go as much as 30 seconds to identify your country of origin.

They ain't stupid.

So, yes. My wife and I just spent some time in Budapest and Vienna and considerably longer in Prague, riding trains between cities. Sometimes we wore jeans, more often not.

One result of this broadening experience is that I will never be able to look another dish of goulash in the face.

Mention your trip to Hungary or the Czech Republic and everybody asks: Did you eat some goulash?

Well...Did you ever eat a hamburger in the United States?

It's barely possible but highly unlikely that you can go to any of those cities and avoid a confrontation with a plate of goulash.

By the end of our first week, we were carefully checking out the outside-posted menus of restaurants and entering only those that offered substantial lists of dishes other than goulash.

Fact: Goulash in the region in which it originated is different from the garbage -- uh, I mean the hotdish with noodles and hamburger --that is called goulash in small towns along the Mississippi and in church basements in Fridley and Fresno. It's also pretty darned good, in all its seemingly infinite but subtle variety.

I saw a restaurant in Prague that advertised five types of goulash. As a real down-home staple in central Europe, it tends to be different in every household. It generally includes substantial hunks of tender beef in some sort of sauce, generally one that is heavy on cream. No noodles.

As I said, it's usually good. But enough is enough already.

I could almost hear my arteries clogging, and I wanted to save the honor of providing the final clot for some of the superb pastry that one finds in coffee shops and bakeries all over that part of the world.

Probably the saddest, most disappointing day of our trip ended with a quick meal in a bar-restaurant in Vienna, however, and had nothing to do with goulash. We had eaten a late lunch, and didn't want a big dinner, so I ordered a common pub-type Viennese snack – two slender foot-long wieners with sauerkraut and a few small boiled potatoes.

It is my sad, not to say disgusting, duty to inform you that Oscar Meyer has it right.

The Viennese wiener is bland, with a revoltingly smooth texture that makes you suspect it contains mainly finely ground gristle and intestines. It tastes and feels exactly like the wieners that Oscar Meyer pitches to children because no sensate adult can choke them down.

Other than that miserable excuse for a sausage, it is difficult to get a light lunch in central Europe. Luncheon menus and dinner menus vary little, if at all -- unless you go to Burger King, which has far more outlets than MacDonald's in most the the region's cities. We generally aren't interested in their offerings here, so we weren't going to encourage their existence in Europe.

Imagine our pleasure, therefore, when we discovered that our hotel in Prague, a Clarion, probably owned at least partially by an American company, served BLTs in its bar during the lunch hours. We weren't often at the hotel at that time, but we did get a couple of BLTs, and they were excellent, with crisp bacon, crisp lettuce and good tomatoes.

The hotel's dining room wouldn't serve the things, however. So the bartender in the generally almost empty bar had to trot across the lobby (which involved climbing some steps) to the dining room kitchen to put in the order and again to retrieve the sandwiches. He was not happy about the arrangement.

Tough. He got more than the usual European tip of 10 percent from us. Bacon and all, I probably avoided 2,000 calories and one blocked artery by having two BLT lunches. Hungarians, Austrians and Czechs do love cream and butter. Their cooking is delicious but deadly.

Now an encouraging note about central Europe: Lawyers obviously do not hold total sway over the region.

We could tell that from the hotel bathtubs.

They are high. They have slippery surfaces, and non-slip rubber pads are not provided. Each shower or bath is equal to a sky dive in danger and thrills. Each and every dismount should be scored.

I'm in unusually good shape and am unusually flexible for one of my advanced age, but I found the act of getting out of the tub after a shower an intimidating task. Standing on the floor of the bathroom in all three of the hotels we occupied, the top of the tub was level with my upper thigh, just below the butt.

The fact that I avoided injury for three weeks while bathing daily provided me with a source of considerable pride and sense of accomplishment.

You've bungee jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge? Big deal. Have you ever climbed wet out of a Czech bath tub?

A sad revelation: Good King Wenceslas is a fraud.

Born in 907, the man existed, but he was only a duke.

He was a pretty good guy, though, as 10th century aristocrats went, if you don't mind a few brutal murders and a bit of torture on behalf of Catholicism. He's still much admired in the vicinity of Prague, where he was born, though they find the English Christmas carol rather silly and do not sing it.

And speaking of murder: Bohemian noblemen (a questionable word in any country) had an interesting game involving royals who didn't treat them and their property with what they regarded as a reasonable degree of respect. It's called defenestration.

The word means the act of throwing something out a window.

In the case of the Bohemians, the favorite something for throwing was a prince or a king, and the windows generally were several stories up in some portion of the immense Prague castle. Landing spots tended to be paved with stone.

Several royals lost the game over the centuries. Another one, who later became a saint, wasn't technically a player in defenestration, since he was tossed off a bridge, which was later named after him, but the result was pretty much the same. Splat.

How high are the windows in the Oval Office?

Sorry, I digress. Just a stray thought.

The Bohemian nobles blew it once, which probably robbed the sport of much of its zest and contributed to its eventual demise. They tossed three people out the windows of a castle conference room (yes, sadly, they had conference rooms in the Middle Ages) but failed to scout the ground below beforehand. It was a garden, only about three stories down, and all of the tossees survived and escaped to cause additional problems for the period's equivalent of our corporate executives.

A folk tale: The old city square in Prague has a squat Gothic tower built in 1308. In the tower is one of the scientific wonders of that age and, in fact, a wonder that keeps folks gawking in awe today. It is an astronomical clock built in 1407 by one brilliant man whose name escapes me and which you wouldn't recognize anyway.

The clock shows phases of the sun and moon, the month, day, year, etc., etc. Also the time of day. And at each hour's chiming, the Twelve Apostles parade past a couple of windows and the figure of death does a little jig and some other charming events take place. The thing has always worked, requiring only some maintenance and rare minor repair, since it was built. All of this is true.

But a popular story has it that the town fathers rewarded the genius who created the thing by having his eyes poked out so that he couldn't build another such marvel for another town.

Turns out it's not true, though the threat of blinding may have been real.

Those 15th century municipal bigwigs were full of fun, just like the guys up in the castle across the river (and over the bridge from whence the to-be saint was launched).

Just one more stray observation:

Hungarian and Czech history is loaded with saints – very big deals – whose names are unknown in this country and, I gather, in western Europe. Also, both countries, have produced droves of superb painters and sculptors whose names we'd never heard and whose works we'd never seen.

My wife and I wandered through a couple of major art museums and were shocked at the high quality work by people obviously held in great reverence in their native lands but unknown to us. (The shock came from our own ignorance of the artists, not the high quality of the work.)

About the time we left one of the museums the answer dawned on me. If you're a Czech artist, even a brilliant artist, and you have a typical Czech name, you'd better get yourself a good western-sounding handle or give up any hope of fame in the wider world.

A couple of the guys whose work we saw for the first time were active in France in the 19th century, going in the same directions as other Impressionists and well known and accepted by them as equals.

But who in England, France or America will take the time to learn the names of Jana Hladikova-Bernkopfova or Zdenek Nemastil?

They're not all that difficult, of course, but we're notoriously lazy about names that sound “foreign” to us, and the Brits are even worse.

There is one exception: The worldwide king of art neuvou, Alfons Mucha, who turned commercial art on its ear in the late 19th century, and brought it at least close to the level of fine art. Of course, his name is easy enough to remember, and westerners altered his first name, spelling it Alphonse.

Such is fame.

I came home from this European jaunt happy and lighthearted – having quickly realized that CNN in Europe is even more stupid and caters even more heavily than it did just a couple of years ago to self-proud American and British business people. It is even worse than the version we see in America. I stopped watching and regained serenity.

It took little more than 24 hours after clearing U.S. Customs to lose much of the joy that seemed so natural over there.

More of that in the following piece.

After trip, there's no place....home

After about three weeks in central Europe, my wife and are back in the United States.

I was about to say, indeed did type, “back home,” but that no longer feels entirely true.

Saying that, and feeling it, is both strange and inordinately uncomfortable. But I realize that I've not felt at home for a long time now in this, the country in which I was born and raised, in which I have lived my life and which I have loved and which I love still in many respects.

One of the things I saw soon after our return was a report that Jimmy Carter said out loud that George W. Bush is the worst president in U.S. history. There was a storm of protest, of course.

With all respect to Carter, who was a far better president than the corporate media has allowed him to be given credit for, his judgment of Bush is akin to saying that Adolf Hitler was the worst chancellor Germany ever had.

It is a fact, but it doesn't begin to convey the full, horrible truth.

Bush, Cheney and the rest of their insane bunch of imperialists are responsible for the unnecessary slaughter of tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of human beings. They are responsible for the maiming, crippling, enormous physical and emotional pain of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and probably that number now runs into the millions. They have destroyed millions of lives by destroying homes, livelihoods, families, societies and nations.

They are by any rational measure, war criminals on a par with the German and Japanese butchers and thugs who were executed after World War II.

America, as a body, will not face that truth. Americans grumble about the war, but they tolerate the madmen; they will not act to dislodge them.

Most of the people I talk to here seem to think the Republicans will lose the next presidential election and that will make everything just fine over night.

No doubt some jingoist idiot will see these words and spread selected excerpts around, calling me a traitor and worse. Normal – what passes for normal these days – citizens will feel unease at reading this, and feel I've “gone too far.”

In Europe, a majority of people know the truth of what I say. That they continue to treat Americans with tolerance is amazing to me. They are kinder, more understanding of foolishness and raw stupidity, and are better people, by and large, than we are. They are thoroughly disgusted with this country's leadership – appalled and sickened, often -- yet most of them don't take it out individual Americans they meet.

And it isn't only the horrors we've inflicted on Iraq and, in fact, most of the Middle East, that cause the people of other countries to wonder whether we can be accepted as equals in the family of civilized nations. (While most Americans continue to believe we are superior to all the rest of the world.)

The Bush/Cheney madness in refusing to acknowledge or do anything at all meaningful about the earth's climate change has all the world (except brilliant, modern and oh-so-sophisticated China) gaping at us in disbelief.

I came back, as I said, truly happy, full of funny observations and good feelings about the world and the creative brilliance of so many of its denizens.

We spent the last nine days of our trip in Prague, the core of which is so beautiful as to feel almost unreal to an outlander. Tourists tend to walk its cobbled, patterned streets gawking and pointing and making “Ohmygawd” noises. You can stand on almost any corner, point a camera in any direction and come away with a snap of something stunningly beautiful.

It seems that hundreds of the world's greatest architects and artisans had to have gathered in Prague and worked there for about five hundred years, mostly in anonymity, creating a giant masterpiece.

The residents appear to appreciate what they have, and our casual contacts with lots of folks indicate that they're a damned decent lot, by and large.

We were in this country only a few hours when several other realizations struck me. The place comes from the people:

Although the people in Vienna's tourist industry aren't the warmest I've ever seen, they have a long, surly way to go to match the snarling level of employees of at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, near JFK Airport in New York, which was our first stop upon return to the United States. Previous experience showed me that extreme rudeness is the norm in New York “service” industries, but not exclusive to that city. I've never encountered its like abroad.

In the past week a host of other observations fell into place.

Not once, I realized, did I see a driver in any of the three cities we visited fail to stop for a pedestrian crossing a street. In Vienna we happened on an accident in which a driver had hit and slightly injured a pedestrian, but the circumstances strongly suggested that the pedestrian had illegally crossed a median, dashed off the curb into the path of the vehicle.

Also, not once did I see a driver fail to stop for a red light. In fact, drivers stopped if a yellow indicated an impending turn to red.

People drive fast in Prague, or so it seemed to me, yet they allow others to merge into traffic, and often pause to allow someone coming from the opposite direction make a left turn, and they show great patience when someone is trying to get into or out of an awkward parking space or do something else that briefly holds up traffic. Courtesies that would surprise one here are the norm there.

I was a tad nervous about the seediness of a neighborhood next to our hotel in Budapest, but a man at the hotel assured me that there was nothing to fear except, perhaps, very late at night, and even then one had only to be a bit wary. I believed him.

Never got a handle on public safety issues in Vienna, but the city certainly has its share of rude teenagers who gather in large groups in chosen places on weekend nights and tend to make their elders somewhat uncomfortable with their shouting and verbal harassment of some passersby. Just like the United States, though a bit less threatening. I never felt real danger, as I have in several American cities, including some parts of my own home town. And I'm not an overly wary or fearful individual.

In Prague, we came across just one gathering of teenage rowdies, and local cops shut them down rather quickly. They were just kids whooping it up. We never felt threatened by them, merely annoyed by their loudness in an inappropriate setting.

Over-all, Prague is the safest real city in the world. By repute, it has no stranger-to-stranger violence. We met an American man who owns one of the city's best restaurants, so named by critics, and who has lived in Prague seven years. He swore the claim is true.

“Violence just doesn't happen. I go anywhere, on foot, at any time of the day or night without the least concern,” he said.

My wife and I walked dark streets late at night, and felt at ease. We frequently met individuals, including many women, often alone, some young, some old, who also walked those dark streets with obvious comfort. No wary, hooded eying of other pedestrians, no speeding up and determined striding when a male stroller was met, no glances over the shoulders.

That's not all of Europe, of course. But it's a revelation. If only we could discover what it is in that culture that keeps humanity's violence in check, and learn how to use it.

Sadly, the American gift of graffiti now has been received in every part of the world we've traveled in recent years, though it's not yet as awful in most of Europe as it is here. The vandals don't mess with the old buildings, the beautiful buildings or the monuments in central Europe. It's as though they have a list of buildings that are off limits and adhere to the list.


With a mind still digesting and analyzing such observations, I came back to the United States, to the snarling desk clerks, the red light runners and the cell-phone talking drivers who will step on the gas to prevent someone else from making a left turn, to the pushers and shovers and the news, the stories of bought politicians and billionaires cheating and clawing for more more more.

The news.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate give George Bush the gift of unfettered funding for the occupation of Iraq. They're afraid of a Republican campaign next year saying they didn't support the troops. The usual army of pundits says it was the right thing to do. A majority of the public, apparently, says it was cowardice. It was cowardice.

Minnesota's right wing Republican governor beats a Legislature controlled by Democrats, disallowing real tax reform and allowing continued underfunding of major public works and such little endeavors as public education.

On the other hand, the Legislature and the governor, Slick Tim Pawlenty, agree to subsidize expansion of the privately owned Mall of America and a couple of other projects which will further line the pockets of obscenely rich guys at taxpayer expense.

In order to undercut any possibility of any sort of agreement on anything with Iran, which they want to attack militarily, the Bush Gang begins new and bigger naval maneuvers off the Iranian coast just before the start of direct talks with Iran on stabilizing the situation between the two countries. Talks will result in less than than mere failure to progress and Bush will say it's all their fault.

Gasoline prices climbed to new heights while I was gone, and the excuses for the huge raises are more feeble than ever before. Refineries had “a round of outages” that “stoked supply concerns,” said one report I read. Right. And some people probably believe that oil company executives aren't a very rich mob of lying, gouging bastards, but some people are wrong.

The same congressional Democrats who bowed to Bush on Iraq funding are falling all over themselves to cut a deal with him on a trade agreement that guarantees still greater deterioration of the American economy while enriching the already super rich.

Every labor, environmental, small business, consumer and public health organization that is aware of the reeking deal opposes it, but Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and a bunch of other Dems who dwell in corporate pockets are going for it anyway. The press, of course, has almost entirely ignored the deal, and will report it, when it passes, as simply another trade agreement, without explaining what it does for whom and to whom.

And speaking of the press, I came home to learn that the investment people who bought the Minneapolis Star Tribune are laying off a mob of people, and have eliminated the jobs of the paper's only truly intelligent and talented sports writer, the main and most knowledgeable classical music critic, the architecture specialist and some others of equal worth.

The new editor of the paper, hired by the money-guy owners, who are simply positioning the paper for resale, said in a radio interview that the thing she is proudest of is acquiring an MBA, “which taught me how to manage journalists,” thus demonstrating in one sentence total incompetence as a journalist.

And in a hugely important story virtually unreported in corporate media, George W. Bush issued a new “national security directive,” giving himself what amounts to complete control of the U.S. government, including things normally under control of judicial and legislative branches, in event of a “catastrophic emergency.”

Under the the directive, he and he alone determines what constitutes a catastrophic emergency. The thing went almost unnoticed, but it is not inconceivable, given the madmen in the White House, that it lays the ground for a coup. Stage something like 9/11 and there ya go: Bush is dictator “to ensure constitutional government,” as the document so cutely phrases it.

There's much more, but it's enough. More than enough.

I now know several American expatriates, living in four countries. All but one have told me they will not, could not return to live in the United States. I somehow failed to ask the other one, and do not know what her answer will be when I do ask.

Ten years ago I wouldn't have understood how people could make such a choice. Now I get it.