A Senseless Monument to Ego

Even as you read this, bulldozers are plowing a trench through some of our most precious landscape. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is theoretically federally protected, but it’s the federal government that is doing the plowing.

Why? For Trump’s border wall. Because he wants to get re-elected, he’s trying to score political points. Never mind that this is a designated International Biosphere Reserve that is recognized by UNESCO. Forget that it will go right through one of the oldest inhabited places in North America, and the ancestral home of the Tohono O’odham nation, which has existed on both sides of the border since at least 1450.

According to this article, this 30 foot wall will impede the migration patterns and habitats of mountain lions, javelinas, the endangered pronghorn, and countless numbers of bird species. And talk about draining the swamp. This will impede Arizona’s last free flowing river, and as aquifers are drained to make the concrete, it will decimate the habitats for the endangered Quitobaquito pupfish and Sonoyta turtle. It will also cause light pollution with its continual spotlights, in a place where you could always see millions of stars in the night sky.

Trump has waived countless laws to make this travesty happen, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act. He claims this is a national emergency. Pfft. This area sees about 5 percent as much human migration as the Rio Grande Valley in Texas does. This catastrophic monument to Trump’s ego is poorly thought out, a taxpayer drain, and an environmental disaster, all for an emergency of his own construction.

I’m so angry right now.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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I have always been fascinated by repressive, authoritarian regimes, kind of in the same way I slow down to look at traffic accidents and read all I can about serial killers. There’s nothing good about them, but I am curious as to how these things came to be. I want to make sense of them, in hopes that I can avoid them and/or prevent them from replicating themselves. Knowledge is power.

Until recently, I’d have said the worst of the worst of all the countries on earth was North Korea, with its empty cities, famines, indoctrination and buttoned-up-tight borders. I can’t imagine living like that, and I know that that’s simply my good luck for not having been born there. But just recently I heard of a country that is, if anything, even more insane, and the creepy thing is it’s rarely talked about. I’m talking about Turkmenistan.

The only reason this country even popped up on my radar is that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver did a hilarious 20 minute segment on its current ruler, Garbanguly Berdimuhamedov because he is so completely and utterly weird. He called him a fierce authoritarian and mentioned that Human Rights Watch World Report 2019 says Turkmenistan is “… one of the world’s most isolated and oppressively governed countries.” He went on to call it one of the worst places on earth. There’s no freedom of the press, and no right to voice an opinion. It is known for its arbitrary arrests and detentions, its endemic corruption and its forced labor.

Oliver stated that Berdimuhamedov is truly, deeply and compellingly odd. He showed clips of the man shooting at targets while slowly riding on a bicycle, recording a ridiculous rap video with his grandson, and falling off a horse in 2013 during a race, and then demanding that all footage of the event be destroyed, and locking down the airports until any such footage could be confiscated. (So of course Oliver showed that clip three times.)

Berdimuhamedov is so obsessed with horses that he named himself “The People’s Horse Breeder”. He has ordered beauty contests for horses. He has also written a poem about his latest horse and read it on national television.

All of this had me intrigued. From there, I went on to watch a 48 minute documentary called Undercover in Turkmenistan. This was an older video, about Turkmenbashi, the ruler who started this whole cult of personality business and ruled the country until his death in 2006. If anything, he makes Berdimuhamedov look like your sweet old grandma. This documentary stated that the country is “sealed up tighter than a jar of gherkins.”

Much of the documentary took place in the capital city, which is full of Italian marble and gold. In fact, there used to be a 15 meter tall statue of Turkmenbashi made of gold that revolved throughout the day to face the sun. It’s also ground zero for the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel, which is almost never used.

Turkmenbashi also wrote the Ruhnama, which he treated like a guide for living. You had to answer questions about it to take your driving test. School kids were tested on it. There were crosswords in the newspaper based on it. And Turkmenbashi renamed the month of September for it.

He also banned dogs, cinemas, car radios, ballet, and circuses, because they are apparently not Turkmen enough and unnecessary. He also decreed that all cars must be white. Meanwhile, dissidents disappear, foreign newspapers were banned, the internet didn’t work, and hotel rooms are still bugged to this day.

On the plus side, according to the documentary, child labor was banned, as was the death penalty, and they erected an arch of neutrality to celebrate the decision to never go to war and never join with anyone else who goes to war. Well, those are good things. But they say Mussolini claimed he made the trains run on time, and I wouldn’t want him back in Italy. (Incidentally, that train thing is false, according to this article in Snopes.)

Another interesting video is from a Youtube series called Kinging It, which I highly recommend. Just regular, engaging people, traveling to crazy places. When they went to Turkmenistan, they said a tracker was placed on their car, and there were watch towers everywhere. They were told they couldn’t exit their route, and couldn’t stop. The roads and all the hotels (which are all 5 star) are completely deserted. They went to a big mall, but all it contained was one restaurant, one toilet, and a bunch of empty shops. When they tried to take photos that included soldiers, those soldiers pounded their guns on the ground by way of warning.

According to Wikipedia, Turkmenbashi came to power in 1991 when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and immediately became president for life. He closed all hospitals outside of the capital, and all rural libraries. Each broadcast under his rule began with a pledge that the broadcaster’s tongue would shrivel if he slandered the country, flag, or president. (No pressure there.)

Lonely Planet, a travel guide that is never one to mince words, calls this country a “totalitarian theme park”. That made me want to learn more about its tourism aspects. For that I went to Wikitravel.

There, I learned that Turmenbashi had the month of January named after himself, and then he named the month of April and also renamed “bread” after his mother. He also banned lip synching, long hair, video games, and golden tooth caps. He also said, “I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets – but it’s what the people want.”

But if you are still interested in visiting this strange place, here is some handy, sometimes chilling advice from wikitravel that was too fascinating for me to avoid quoting at length. It begins with several places to visit.

  • Avaza – a multi-billion dollar construction project near Turkmenbashi aimed at creating a “national touristic zone” of over 60 world-class hotels, shopping, and a new international airport. The government likens the project to Dubai, but there is little foreign investment thus far.

  • Darvaza Flaming Crater — At this spot near the town of Darvaza, an oil rig accidentally struck a large pocket of natural gas in 1971. The rig collapsed into the cavern, resulting in a large crater filled with fire. It was decided to let the fire burn rather than let the poisonous gas escape into the nearby town. The fire, while expected to burn itself out quickly, burns to this day and it is popularly nicknamed The Gateway to Hell. The gas crater is best viewed at night. There are no facilities around the gas crater. Camping in this area is common. Getting to the gas crater with a small personal car can be difficult. The last 7 kilometers from the main road are on desert sand and small cars often get stuck. While a handful of travelers do walk to the flaming crater, the hike is strenuous and not pleasant, especially on a windy day or during the summer time heat. If you are traveling on a transit visa, you may ask a nearby teahouse for transport to the crater, which will cost around 150 TM.

  • Pay a visit to Kow Ata underground sulfur lake, found in the mountains an hour or so outside Ashgabat. It is possible to swim in the year-round warm, mineral rich, and medicinal waters. Expect a walk down increasingly slippery steps, and a corrugated shack to change in – unless you’re handy with your towel. Kow Ata means Father of the Lakes. The cave is more than 200 meters long, 20 meters high and at some point more than 50 meters wide. The water has a constant temperature of 33 to 37 degrees Celsius.

  • National Museum of Turkmenistan — The National Museum of Turkmenistan is a museum in Asgabat. It is split into three sections: natural history, science, and the current president of Turkmenistan. Entry is $30, and the museum is sparsely visited. Photography is not allowed anywhere in the museum, and during your visit you are accompanied by a museum employee who follows you and ensures you abide by their rules. It is quite an experience, and very entertaining as many items in their collections are not genuine – most obviously photos in the President’s museum. There are a slough of poorly photoshopped images of the president showing his wide variety of skills including teaching, playing tennis, racing, horseback riding, and many many more.

You need a visa to get in which requires a letter of introduction from a Turkmen tourist agency. Sleeping pills are not allowed. You need a long list of vaccinations. Lots of red tape. If the photocopy of your passport is oriented the wrong direction, it could delay you for weeks. There are registration fees. Entry and departure cards. You can’t leave without your departure card and a notice to leave stamped on your passport. You’ll also need travel permits for many regions.

No passenger trains or public transportation cross the border. To get there from Uzbekistan you have to walk 15 minutes across no-mans land.

Some travelers have faced problems attempting to travel to Turkmenistan by boat. Travelers should be aware that some “ferries” are in fact cargo ships that take on some passengers incidental to their primary function. Passengers are generally not provided food or water on these ships, and sleeping and sanitary facilities are likely to be rudimentary. Travelers should be aware that ships arriving at the port of Turkmenbashy often wait days offshore for outgoing ships to vacate the dock to allow incoming ships to disembark. Some travelers have spent more than a week offshore while their ship awaited permission to enter the port, and they have run out of stores of food and water, or had their Turkmen visas expire before they could be used.

Most taxis are unofficial. Just hail the first car you see and pay what’s fair.

Roadblocks are in place throughout the country, so this method is really best used only within city limits unless you are specifically looking for trouble.

Expect distinctly average Turkman or Russian cuisine in restaurants.

Do not criticize, insult or speak badly of the President, the country or its people. Things have eased a bit since Turkmenbashi’s death, but the country remains a tightly-controlled police state. The Ruhnama, a book written for the Turkmen people by Suparmurat Niyazov is still sold, and still taught in Turkmen schools. As such, it is best regarded to not criticize the former President as well.

As a general rule of thumb, keep your opinions about the country’s politics to yourself since speaking out against the government is a crime for which you can be given a prison sentence, or if you are a foreign citizen, the remote possibility of deportation from the country.

If you are searched remain calm and importantly do not let the police put their hands in your pockets, empty your pockets yourself and present their contents. You do not want to be the victim of drug planting in a country that has corrupt police and severe penalties for drug possession.

Turkmen law enforcement are well trained and professional, but be warned that they are very aggressive, especially during the night, so do expect some sort of harassment from them.

Due to their low salaries, bribery by the police is common and is a fact of life for many locals, given that Turkmenistan was ranked as one of the top twenty corrupt countries in the world.

Many hotels are frequently bugged by the police. Bugging in hotel rooms is common – telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Do not sign any documents provided by the police if it is in a language you do not know, as it may be that they may try to rip you off for some more money. Just be polite with them, and just say that you do not understand it.

Homosexual activities, prostitution and intercourse with prostitutes are prohibited, each of which is punishable with up to 2 years in prison.

So there you have it. Turkmenistan. It certainly makes me appreciate the life I have even more than I previously did.

Darvaza Crater in Turkmenistan

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The Hard Truth about Coal

There are few things that I find more annoying than being forced to listen to someone who is misinformed. I hate being spoon fed false information, and I hate it even more when it’s obviously biased and unresearched. For example, when someone spouts ignorance about the Koran, I automatically say, “Have you ever even READ the Koran? No? Then get back to me when you have.”

So imagine how much it rankled when I was stuck listening to a tour guide on a train, with no way out, when she said (twice!) that she didn’t know why the Alaska coal export industry collapsed, leaving thousands unemployed, but “it happened during the Obama administration.” Wink, wink.

By the way, this woman also said that global warming is “cyclical”, despite every single solitary graph that shows that what’s happening now is extreme and unnatural. So let’s face it, the woman was a fool. And I was stuck on the train with her, there was no escaping that fact, and I knew there was no point in attempting to lead her out of ignorance. It would have just gotten awkward. So I gritted my teeth.

But all this irritation has to go somewhere, dear reader, so brace yourself. I’m about to purge myself. You’re going to be vented upon.

I decided to do a little bit of research about the coal industry in general, and Alaska’s in particular. I learned a lot of interesting things. (And it provided the delightful side benefit of reinforcing my belief that that tour guide was a dunce. So, yay.)

First of all, it’s true that Usibelli Coal Mine, currently the only operational coal mine in Alaska, is no longer exporting coal to foreign countries. It used to export to South Korea, Chile, Japan, and other pacific rim countries, but no more. It now has only about 115 employees, and their focus is on Alaska power plants.

Why is this? First of all, according to this article, in 2011 Usibelli exported 1.3 million tons of coal, but in 2012 this number fell to 877,000 tons, and by 2014 was only 513,000 tons.  In 2015, no shipments were made to South Korea or Chile and a mere 150,000 tons were exported to Japan.

This drop in demand has made it unfeasible to export coal to Asia. The high production costs, the remote locations, and the shipping expenses make this coal uncompetitive. Also, according to this article, China, the largest consumer of coal on the planet by a country mile, has drastically reduced its imports. In fact, its consumption “appears to have peaked in 2014.”

According to this article, China has closed over 1,000 of its own mines, due to lack of need, so it’s certainly not going to prioritize imports. And the price of coal is dropping globally, with no end in sight.

South Korea and Chile’s markets were a mere drop in the bucket compared to China’s. By that I mean they constitute about 1 percent of global consumption. India takes up about 10 percent of the world’s coal consumption, but even their consumption is dropping annually. That means exporters around the globe are hurting. It’s not just us. Australia’s coal mining industry is in poor shape as well.

So, yeah, if you’re looking to make money from coal, you’re wasting your time. As more and more countries turn to green energy sources, they’re turning away from coal. As more and more countries realize they should invest in service industries rather than factories, they’re turning away from coal. Investing in coal is tantamount to investing in the Model A Ford.

Coal is dying. And it should. It’s long overdue.

Do I feel sorry for the people who have lost jobs? Of course. But it’s unreasonable to expect the world to prop up an industry that has no demand or use because of that. Some realities are harsh, but they’re still inevitable.

If you’re too short-sighted to realize that the world is outgrowing coal, and you’re looking for someone to blame, don’t blame Obama. Don’t be that simplistic. Realize that the times are changing, and you’d be well advised to change with them.

And, um, don’t spread your ignorance to a captive audience. This train is moving down the track, honey. With or without you. Just sayin’.

Coal Miners

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I heard this delightful word for the first time the other day. It has become one of my top six favorites, along with “ensorcelled”, “delicious”, “shenanigans”, “nose-booped” and “kerfuffle”.

The speaker in question was saying that it was hard to imagine the amount of self-empretzelment that fundamentalist Christians must have to go through to embrace Donald Trump, who is a lying, cheating, multiply-divorced, misogynistic, racist, dictator-loving braggart.

While I heartily agree with all of the above, that’s not what I love about the word self-empretzelment. I think it’s much easier to remember than “cognitive dissonance”, which is Merriam-Webster defines as the “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”

I think cognitive dissonance is increasing in the world that we live in today. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, but with each passing day, I struggle more to understand people. How can you love your children and reject the need to protect the environment that they will inherit? How can you abhor violence and yet not want people to get background checks before purchasing guns? How do you say you’re all about love and yet try to prevent others from being in loving relationships? How do you demand your human rights, and yet wish to trample those same rights for others?

Self-empretzelment. It really is a thing.


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Kolyma was a word that I had never heard until a few months ago. I suspect only 1 out of every 100 Americans has ever heard it. On the other hand, it likely causes the average Russian to shudder.

It is a region in the far eastern part of Russia, and is part of Siberia. It’s a harsh climate, bitterly cold all year round, and covered in permafrost. It’s isolated, and inaccessible for the better part of the year. You can only reach the place by boat for the very brief period when the ice breaks up on the Sea of Okhotsk.

Humans are not meant to live in such harsh conditions, and no one in their right mind would do so. Not voluntarily. Kolyma is a place to be avoided.

From 1930 to about 1954, it was home to the most brutal labor camp in Soviet history. It is estimated that 250,000 to more than a million people died there, after working in this Gulag under starvation conditions, mostly to extract gold.

It was a place where violent criminals were considered the cream of the crop. They got the most privileges. The inmates that were treated the worst were the political prisoners, which mostly consisted of academics or intellectuals.

You could find yourself sent to Kolyma for a variety of trivial reasons. One man, it is said, was sent there for refusing to write a song about Stalin. You could also wind up there for decades, if you survived, simply for speaking out against the state or refusing to incriminate friends or colleagues. After World War II, many Soviet POWs who were released by the allies were then sent to Kolyma for 10-25 years for “collaborating with the enemy”.

Many authors have written about Kolyma. The one who has touched me the most during my research on this post was former prisoner Varlam Shalamov. You can read one of his moving stories, Condensed Milk, on-line. It really shows how much your humanity can be taken away from you, and how your whole focus, your whole survival, can be reduced to one can of condensed milk. You can also read some chilling quotes from his book, Kolyma Tales, here.

It is said that this Gulag shut down in 1953, but many people, oddly enough, remained there voluntarily. And in truth, there were still some prisoners there. The last prisoner was supposedly released in 1990. Most structures in Kolyma are disintegrating now, and most people are gone. But no one knows for sure how many bodies lie beneath the permafrost.

What I find most disturbing about Kolyma is that it occupied such a horrible place in human history, and yet so few people know about it. It makes you wonder what else we are missing.


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I am on the horns of a moral dilemma. I believe very strongly in free speech and freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Nothing angers me more than a book burning, or a school board that requires teachers to avoid teaching things that are science-based. I am usually the first to read a book if it gets banned.

Because of all the above, it kind of makes me squirm that, ever since I started my Little Free Library, I have been actively participating in censorship. It’s true. I have. And I will probably continue to do so.

Ugh! I’m going to hell in a handbasket.

The way a Little Free Library works is that people can take books and keep them as long as they want. They can return them, too, or they can bring other books. Most things are welcome. But some things I have to remove.

I look at myself as the curator of my library. Just as museums have curators who determine what exhibits they will display and what image their museums shall project to the world, I, too, am in control of the types of messages I put out there in my library. Being a steward is a service that I’ve voluntarily provided, and it is, after all, located on my private property.

But this censorship thing is kind of a slippery slope, and one that I never thought I’d be sliding down. It all started with the pizza flyers that someone stuffed in my library. I’m not here to advertise for local businesses. Those flyers went into the recycle bin, and I didn’t feel bad about it at all.

I also know I wouldn’t feel bad about pitching any pornography, were it to appear. My little library is often used by children. Can you imagine if little Johnny came home with a Penthouse magazine and Mom found out he got it from my box? No. Not appropriate at all.

I also get rid of books that are in poor condition. If the spines are torn off, for example, they get sent to Goodwill. I don’t want to be the dumping ground for everyone’s garbage books. That, and no one will want to take a disintegrating book to read, so it’s just taking up much-needed space. I also get rid of moldy books and ones that reek of cigarette smoke. I don’t want to trigger someone’s asthma. Again, these are situations that don’t feel morally ambiguous to me.

But here’s where it gets a little sticky. I’ve also donated religious books to Goodwill. I’m all for seeking your own spiritual path, but there are other sources for this information. I don’t want to proselytize, either purposely or by accident. It’s just not in my nature. I also know that the people in my neighborhood participate in a wide variety of religions. I don’t want anyone to feel alienated. Maybe I’d include a book on comparative religion, if it wasn’t promoting one philosophy over another. I don’t know.

I’ve also been avoiding putting blatantly political books out there. Mostly the books I’ve come across have been in alignment with my point of view, but if I put those out there, then I’ll have to put out ones I actively disagree with, and that would make me cringe. So, further down the censorship slope I slide.

Since I started my Little Free Library, I’ve met a lot of LFL stewards online. They’ve shared a multitude of moral dilemmas that have made me realize what a complicated task I’ve taken on.

For example, one steward received a children’s book which said, “For Boys Only” on the cover. I don’t think I would include this book in my library. I don’t want to participate in making girls feel as though there are things they cannot do or read.

Another steward discovered a bunch of anti-vax literature in her library. No. No. A thousand times no. I will not actively participate in spreading false information that could potentially lead to death. I refuse. This information has been debunked by the scientific community, so I’m not spreading it. I could not share literature that denies climate change for the very same reason.

Another steward received a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In a world that is experiencing a shocking escalation in hate crimes, would I want to put that lunatic’s poorly written, hateful ramblings out there? Hell to the no. While I think this is an important book, for researchers and historians and people wanting to learn about hate without being sucked into it themselves, it requires context. I am unable to provide that context, and so it wouldn’t be included in my library.

I’ve had my library for less than two months, and I’ve already come a long way from simply tossing out pizza advertisements. Rest assured, there are plenty of amazing books in there. I get excited every time I look. Reading enlivens me. It’s an adventure.

But here’s what is making me lose sleep: Where do I draw the line? Who am I to sit in judgment? Do I have the right?

What do you think?


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There are certain things that one is supposed to leave behind in childhood. Cruelty. Humiliating others. Petty revenge. Foolish pranks. Bullying. Laughing at others’ misfortune. Selfishness. Name calling.

I have a hard time relating to adults who engage in such behavior. I don’t find it funny. In truth, I find it horrifying. Such blatant lack of compassion kind of scares me, because you never know when it will be aimed in your direction. Be very careful who you consider to be friends.

I am particularly worried about those of us who are just entering adulthood right now, at a time when the leader of our country demonstrates most of this conduct on a daily basis and may very well be reelected. What kind of signal are we sending to our young adults when this is countenanced?

Now, more than ever, we need to model kindness and love and generosity. We need to be the lessons that our leaders are not. And we need to ask ourselves why we have such leaders in the first place.


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