Teaching Industrial Relations in Vietnam: a US Labor Academic at a Union-sponsored University

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

So How Would a Revolution Actually Start in the US? — October 8, 2018

So How Would a Revolution Actually Start in the US?

So how would a revolution actually start? 

Our daughter, an ER nurse who thinks ahead, has been reading the New York Times Op Eds post-Kavanaugh. She asked this question.

I don’t think it will start before the election on November 6. Everyone is too busy.

But first, a word from our sponsor:


 This is not me.This is my friend and she said it was OK to use this.

After the mid-term election, if the Democrats pick up some seats – enough to make some difference at the national level – there will continue to be a period while people are waiting to see what happens next.  If there is good stuff at the local level – like, if Jovanka (a democratic socialist and DSA member) wins for California Assembly District 15 – then people will take a breath and focus locally. People will get behind the more do-able parts of her Bernie-esque agenda and try to move it forward. That’s all.

But if people feel that this is just another election that has been stolen like Bush vs Gore in 2000 or 2004 and Hilary vs Bernie  vs Trump in 2016, then the rope that ties things together will start to shred visibly, like in a movie where the hero is hanging off the side of a cliff and people up above on the top and down below can all equally see what’s about to happen. We will all agree: We’ll say: “You stole it!” and they’ll agree, “Yes, we stole it! Ha ha!”

Like Samuel Jackson in the Instagram mashup, yelling at Kavanaugh: “You did it!! Yes, you did, Brett!”


Then things may start moving.

There are two clocks ticking. One, obviously, is climate change. There will be increasing wildfires, hurricanes, floods, new diseases, etc. The price of food will go up (it already has; I used to be able to buy everything I wanted at the Monterey Market for $35. Now it’s more like $70.) It will probably take a year or two for us here in the Berkeley bubble to feel the big changes, so we will just sit like the frogs in the pot while other parts of the world burn and drown and people put what they can carry on their backs and leave home.

The other clock is the economy. There is another crash coming, and this time the ruling class will not even pretend to put a cushion under those who fall to the bottom. We will all be Puerto Rico while the top .01% sweeps up whatever shakes loose and stashes it away. Note that in the wake of the vote for Kavanaugh, the stock market went up. These people are placing bets.

The economic crisis clock is ticking faster than climate change because the people placing their bets will want to get out with their winnings before it all blows up.

These two clocks will run out no matter what happens on November 6. There is no Planet B, no Westward Expansion, no Darkest Africa to claim, raid and rob.

At the point I called Joe to come and help me think about this. What follows includes his ideas.

A Real Revolution Requires a Power Shift

A revolution in America would not be guerilla warfare like Cuba or Vietnam, despite the millions of guns that are out there. If the civil institutions of our limited and distorted but persisting democracy can survive an electoral transition, a revolution in America could start using these existing institutions. That sounds like Bernie’s agenda:  free public higher education, rebuilding infrastructure, tax the rich, jobs in a reclaimed public sector, Medicare for all. But that agenda is the outcome of a power shift, not the power shift itself. A real revolution is, by definition, a shift in class power, in our case from the present ruling class of capital to the working class, the vast majority.

Not all so-called “revolutions” really involve a power shift. When there is just a replacement of one ruling group by another, but no fundamental change in class power and therefore social institutions, that’s not a real revolution.  Examples of this are the Philippines and the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and former USSR republics, etc.  There have only been a few real revolutions, maybe five, in the last 100 years.  They can also be reversed and/or distorted nearly beyond recognition.

If a revolution in the US actually began electorally, or looked like it might, at some point the current ruling class would either fix the election, deny the results or attack the new government, eventually by force if necessary. The key example for comparison might be Chile. We would have to be prepared to defend the gains by force, as Allende was not prepared to do in Chile, despite the movement, and many workers, asking him to do so.

There is also the possibility of international action against a revolutionary USA from Europe, Japan, even a capitalist China. From the point of view of the EU, a revolutionary USA might look like a Venezuela. On the other hand, it is possible that if we are prepared, and much of the military refuses to fight us, then it might be fairly peaceful, as it was in 1917 in Russia. Remember that one of the reasons we eventually pulled out of Vietnam was because the soldiers themselves were starting to refuse orders. There still might be a civil war later, with or without foreign intervention. The point is that in order to achieve a real power shift, there would have to be mass support clearly demonstrated for radical changes.

The best way to minimize violence is to be prepared, openly and publicly, and have a big strong mass movement with a leadership that can be trusted. In this we can think of it as a super strike on a much bigger level. We are light-years away from that now, but things can change very fast, even in our lifetimes.

What are the Obstacles?  Racism, Police, Lack of Leadership

We can’t just think of a revolution as voting in the good guys and re-writing laws. There will be opposition. One way to evaluate the likelihood of a successful power shift is to look at what would stand in the way.

The profoundly racialized structure of our society is a major obstacle. Racism has power over us white people through our weakness and fear, which can make us impotent in this fight. The House of Kavanaugh is big and well-built (and like the White House in Washington, was built with slave labor). It will be easier to empty it than to knock it down, but one way or another, it has to go. Exiting the House of Kavanaugh onto level ground where people are equal means leaving behind all the little perks and privileges that it enables. Outside the House of Kavanaugh, a white man has no more points than a Black man or a woman. He doesn’t get to talk more or eat more or walk in front. He doesn’t necessarily get the job if he’s applying for one. People inside the House of Kavanaugh are aware of what will happen if they really exit. No matter where their sympathies lie, they will find it hard to do. “I can’t afford it,” they’ll say. But outside the House of Kavanaugh, gains can be made even for white men that they could never win on their own.  We have seen this happen in strikes, when by uniting across race and gender lines, major gains were won.

Second, our police system is embedded in our racist culture. There may be individual good guys, but as an institution, they are on the wrong side. Today in America, their job is to protect property. They are now equipped with military-grade weapons. Their system feeds the prisons, where one out of three Black men spend some time during their lives. Then there’s the pseudo-military civilian armed forces that operate with government approval, like ICE, which feed the detention centers and the tent camps in the Texas desert where a thousand children are held captive. There is also a huge force of non-governmental security guards and private armed personnel. These entities also have guns, helicopters, trucks, drones, etc. Their power is force. They might prove unreliable politically at some point, since they are basically mercenaries, and some are unionized now, but that’s a far stretch.

The lack of real leadership is third obstacle. There are voices rising, and new faces that are getting familiar, but no one, no group of people who represent a major movement, has emerged. For that matter, there is no overall movement right now that includes everyone who wants a revolution. Instead, we have dozens or hundreds of campaigns. We have no revolutionary organization. If history is any judge, a revolutionary organization is needed. Even here, the recent growth of the explicitly socialist left, largely due to the Bernie campaign, and outrage over Trump, suggests that both a mass socialist movement and even a core revolutionary leadership might soon emerge.

Some of the real leaders may come from the prisons. Prisons have been opened before: the Bastille, for example. And remember Mandela who was released after 27 years? There is movement inside our prison system, too: they just had a mass strike. Again, racism is our key obstacle here.

Are there some hopeful signs?

Hopeful signs include the fact that the public sector itself is still large and a site of struggle, the teachers especially. Under Hitler, all the teachers just became Nazis or shut up overwhelmingly. The Nazis did not have to do mass purges in the schools or the public sector generally. We think, and hope, that would be different today in the USA.  The teachers’ strikes of last spring are a something to be very proud of. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Arizona teachers went on statewide strikes, without the leadership of the teacher’s unions telling them to – or even supporting them, until it was clear that they were going ahead with it. The public sector is important. The right wing Supreme Court was not confused when they came down with the Janus vs AFSCME Council 31 decision! The progressive organizing among nurses and other health care workers, both into unions and for the welfare of their patients (Medicare for All)  is also suggestive for the future.

Other activity in the world of labor is also hopeful. The Fight for Fifteen started as a ridiculous pipe dream; now Amazon boasts it will pay its workers $15 an hour.  Right now there is a national strike going against Marriott Hotels, led by workers in UNITE HERE. David Bacon (dbaccon.igc.org) has some wonderful photos posted of workers on the picket lines in the Bay Area. Based on what we know about internal organizing within UNITE HERE, especially among the housekeeper staff, preparation for this huge action has occupied at least 10, probably 15 years. Not overnight, in other words! That’s a lot of hard work.

Finally, the country might actually split geographically. It happened once already, although the immediate causes were primarily economic, competition against unpaid slave labor, and only secondarily the moral outrage of, and against, the slavers. Also important to remember that what began as a war to save the Union against secession became, of necessity, a war to end slavery, with the action of the Black people themselves, enslaved an d free, absolutely essential to both the change in the war goals and in the final victory. Things can change a whole lot.

What is the comparable issue today?  Maybe the two ticking clocks – climate change and the economic meltdown – will force a revolution, but they won’t split the country by themselves probably; we are all in both of those together (only in the final analysis is that strictly true, and as Keynes said, in the final analysis, we are all dead.) But the sharper the differences between the states, in terms of minimum wage, unemployment benefits, environmental regulations, public education, labor protections, Medicaid expansion and public services generally, the more you wonder if we even know that we belong to the same country. In Illinois, speaking of workers’ compensation laws, we used to say, “If you’re injured in Indiana, crawl to Illinois!” But it looks as if people move to where jobs are, or given the price of housing, where they can get a roof over their heads.

So, when?

An optimistic view, therefore, may be no revolution in our lifetime, but a discernable movement toward socialism or at least toward a post-capitalist future where working people have the greatest say-so over what happens. But it could happen sooner. Some famous revolutionary (maybe a Russian?) once said that in an actual revolutionary situation people learn in a week what would take them a lifetime in normal times. Things can change very fast.

Our job is to try to both move them and get ready for the unexpected.





The Mansion of the Kavanaughs — October 3, 2018

The Mansion of the Kavanaughs

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve posted. What could I say that wasn’t bad news? But now the Brett Kavanaugh hearings have happened and all hell has broken loose.  Women protesting all over the place, occupying offices in government buildings, clamoring for the white boys in charge to listen to their stories and pay attention. The best quickie is the Instagram mashup that has Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction leaning over Kavanaugh and shouting, “You did it!! You know you did it!”

Here is what I wrote on September 29, 2018. I was responding to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Lindsay Ellis, from September 27: As Kavanaugh Allegations Widen, Elite-College Alumni Recall Harassment From Decades Past Students, by Lindsay Ellis. She has said she wants to post it in various places so I figured I’d post  it here, too.

The Mansion of the Kavanaughs

As a 1965 graduate of Radcliffe (which was then still in the process of becoming Harvard), I am being urged by family and husband to write something about all this.

I have a slightly different take on the #MeToo stories.  I would tell three kinds of stories, not one. First and foremost and overwhelmingly important is naming and describing the patriarchal social structure that we all lived in back then, men and women together. It still exists, as we saw displayed in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings yesterday, but I am going to talk about it in the past tense for now. Picture it as a mansion made of marble, with columns and twenty wide steps leading up to the front doors. How you inhabited it depended on your gender. At Harvard when I was a student, there was a whole undergraduate library just for “men.” There was one – only one – women’s “lounge” Harvard Yard, in a basement. Walking through the Yard, women could wear trousers only if the snow was a certain number of inches deep. A prominent professor, beloved by many, responded to my request that he be my thesis tutor with “I don’t do girls.”  Women professors for role models of how to survive in the mansion? To my knowledge, there were two: one was a poet who committed suicide.  And there was the white-coated, silver-haired Cambridge doctor to whom I went seeking birth control — a diaphragm – who said, “Educated women make wonderful mothers.” Did he actually assault me? No — but I nearly died of a back street abortion the week before I graduated. This is at a time when the ratio of men to women if you include the graduate schools was about 20 to 1 and getting hit on was as certain as getting rained on if you went outdoors in March.


None of what I’m talking about here constitutes sexual assault in and of itself. It’s not individual, it’s the whole structure — the famous professor, the kindly doctor, the library that did not admit women — these are just people occupying rooms in this mansion, but it is designed and run to make all men the masters of all women. Women trying to walk around in that mansion? Well, if you didn’t take the back stairs you had to wear a maid’s outfit or just accept the idea that they assume you were a slut.


I can’t begin to touch how this was racialized, at least not in this letter.


But it wasn’t all the men, of course. When I connect with old classmates, men especially, my strongest feeling is affection and I want to ask, “You were there too, how was it for you?” This house of patriarchy was great for bullies like Brett Kavanaugh, for whom a drunken party with girls was normal, but it was awful for young men who watched with shame and fear as their women friends and sisters got hurt or bashed around psychologically. What’s more, the roaring of the bullies was as much directed at other young men as it was at us, the women. They suffered right along with us, although we didn’t have a way to talk about it. The house of patriarchy was a totality and occupied all possible space, but there were some safe places tucked away within it — a theater group, a lab, a civil rights organization that had some politics, a chess club where a guy who wasn’t a bully could be undisturbed and actually study. They also might find a partner, a woman who wasn’t attracted to bullies, who could help keep both of them safe. But other young men got dragged or dazzled into the magic circle of the jerks for whom the patriarchy was designed, the football guys and other athletes. During my years at Harvard I could spot those jerks a mile away: they were the B-School guys, the Law School guys, and some of Government majors who aspired to be law school guys. Not so much the Medical school guys, who were usually nerds. (And these grad schools were overwhelmingly male; 50 years later, I probably have to explain that.) If those who were dragged in weren’t Kavanaugh themselves, they hung out with him and basked in the glow, and did what he dared them to do or else. Him renting a bus to take his buddies to Fenway Park and drinking themselves silly both ways would be typical.


The mansion itself is just a place, although it’s a place with rules. But it doesn’t in itself perform sexual assault. It has rooms where Harvey Wienstein can be left undisturbed for a few hours after lunch, and someone at the front desk who will call him when the girl shows up, and someone else who will walk her to the elevator, but the mansion itself doesn’t do anything. If it was a workplace, we would call it “hostile environment,” but it’s not a workplace, it’s the world. Or it wants to be the world.


So that’s the first way I’d like to see the #MeToo stories told: the mansion. The second way I’d want to see them told is through the eyes of the people who were men but not bullies. I was lucky enough to know quite a few of them. These were my friends. I told my husband that these were guys who would stop when I said “Stop,” but many of them I had no sexual relationship with at all. Today I am still friends with some of them. I have also been to reunions where a guy or two has come up to me, someone I didn’t know, and apologized — not for himself, necessarily, but on behalf of his cohort.  It brings tears to my eyes right now to remember this. There have also been suicides and long depressions and mental illness among some of these guys, I want to say, whereas others have done fine (but none are rich lawyers, by the way). Some of the men who were not bullies themselves were undoubtedly sexually abused, just to show who’s boss. Mark Judge’s depression and alcoholism might be the price he paid for hanging out with Brett Kavanaugh.


These guys, the good guys who are not natural bullies and who hesitate to become members of the Kavanaugh gang get hurt in many ways that are not getting headlines these days. Living around bullies can make you crazy; maybe it’s like PTSD.


Of course, neither the victims nor the witnesses could talk about their experience out loud. It was worse than forbidden, it was unspeakable. There were no words for it. You couldn’t name it because there was no vocabulary for it. Lacking practice, we none of us knew what to say or how. That will make you crazy.  Doing what Christine Blasey Ford did was an act of sanity in the face of that prohibition. Apparently her just saying those forbidden words out loud in public was so powerful that Brett Kavanaugh has decided that it has destroyed his family, his reputation, his career. No wonder it was forbidden!


The third story, then is the experience that Christine Blasey Ford recounted. I want to say first off that her story was so familiar to me that I felt that I could have told it myself. This, and things like this, is what happened not just once or twice but all the time back when I was at Harvard. Maybe not exactly that way, and maybe not to me, but the banal normality of her experience was so absolute that I felt I could have walked right up those stairs and heard those boys laughing— giggling, really, keeping up a running commentary on the challenges of peeling a girl out of a one-piece bathing suit.


Maybe the best way to communicate how banal and normal it was to experience sexual assault at Harvard is to say that there were lists of abortionists that circulated among the girls in my dorm. There was one famous one, in Ashland, Pennsylvania, whose name had been mentioned in a poem by Anne Sexton, but there were others, in Montreal and Switzerland and Puerto Rico, and it was not unusual for someone to say, “Hey, can I get a look at that list, please?” I heard it referred to as “the cost of doing business.” You could stay in the dorm, wear your fuzzy slippers and hair curlers, and be pretty sure of staying a virgin, or you could go out into the world and try to live the same kind of life the guys were leading, going places, meeting people, coming back late in a taxi, in which case you took a whole set of risks that the boys did not take and those risks were with you all the time, with payday coming once a month when you did or did not get your period.


Yesterday I was so upset (both upset and awed) by what I was hearing during Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that I took my iPhone, left the house and walked down to the bus stop near our house and just rode the Number 18 bus for a few hours, listening, from Berkeley into Oakland and back, making myself invisible in the company of the other bus riders. A bus is a nice alternative to the mansion. I did notice that quite a few other riders were women my age and they were all listening intently to something on their phones.


Then the Senators went to lunch and came back home and now Kavanaugh was being questioned. I do not want to pay him the respect of saying a lot about him. Instead, I want to say what happened to me while I listened to him. I was shocked to find that I was watching him re-build the mansion of patriarchy, brick by brick, log by log, marble column by column, right in front of my eyes.  While listening to Christine Blasey Ford testify, it had been like being in some plain flat place like an open field, just plain reality. She and I were both in the world I recognize, the world I live in now, where girls can get birth control and marriage is not necessary and gay couples are no big deal, and where we can and should talk about bad things and call them by their name and send bullies and jerks and rapists to prison, not put them on the Supreme Court.  Blasey Ford sat there under the lights being stared at by millions of people and she said out loud things that were true in 1982 and true today, and millions of people listened to her and nodded their heads and agreed that she was telling her story the right way, at the right time, to the right people. “Credible,” everyone agreed.


And then Kavanaugh got started. He was told that he could make his opening statement as long as he wanted, and it was long. First, he seemed to be occupying the same reality that Christine Blasey Ford and I inhabit, on that same flat plain. I think he expressed sorrow for her, while also insisting that he didn’t do it: he himself had never met her, he didn’t know her. Then he talked about his family, his father (seeming to stifle sobs while mentioning his father) and his daughter. Then as he talked, his tone got louder and he seemed to puff up with air. At about this point I suddenly felt a chill: I could see the mansion start to rise before me. I could see what he was doing. He was building it right in front of us by listing all its rooms and telling us what went on in each one. He listed his jobs mowing lawns, his summer athletic camps, his “captain’s workouts,” the football team, the basketball team, lifting weights, working his tail off, going to church (which for him is automatic “like brushing my teeth”), the private Catholic boys’ schools he and his buddies went to and the matching private Catholic girl’s schools where the girls that were socially OK went. Then it was Yale and Yale Law School and clerking and working for George Bush, flying on Air Force One. Room by room, he was reconstructing the mansion with all its many rooms, painting it clearly for us, every single room full of regular guys like him leading lives like his. He was building a different “normal”, not the normal that Christine Blasey Ford and I live in, but the normal of himself, the normal in which he is the top dog. By the time he had pretty much listed just about every kind of elite male privilege (boy or man) that a white guy can get in this country, he had passed from calm to sorrowful to a little sniffly to mad, then really full-on pissed off and loud, making threats and finally in a white bully rage, leaning forward with his face blown up, saying things like “You will reap the whirlwind!”  At the climax he was up high in the mansion, standing on the very balcony, his arms wide to the world, suffering like Jesus on the cross because this woman had “ruined his life, his family, his reputation,” etc etc etc. — a victim, but also he had rebuilt the mansion, built an establishment around himself of which he was the exemplary deserving occupant.


My husband was also watching Kavanaugh on TV and he asked, “Is that Shakespeare?”  My sister in law was there and she said, “No, the Bible.”  But there’s a way in which Kavanaugh’s rage was something out of Shakespeare, in the sense of mad Lear on the heath, wild and raging that he has had his crown grabbed out of his hands. However, when Shakespeare builds up a character like this — usually someone who has lost something and tries to get the universe to converge on him and get it back for him  – Shakespeare makes sure we can see the other characters on the stage gaping at the guy who has gone off the rails. In Shakespeare, someone will survive to pick up the pieces when this guy blows up. It will be a tragedy, but someone will survive.


Not so with Kavanaugh, who finally stopping bloviating leaving everyone clearly exhausted. Diane Feinstein, who although she has a lot of money nevertheless grew up in that mansion, was probably having a hard time focusing on what is real and what is not. She seemed to fumble the first question. Kavanaugh then managed to filibuster his way through most of the ensuing questions. Ultimately, of all the Democratic Senators, only Cory Booker, the Black ex-mayor of Newark and now Senator from New Jersey, was able to bring the jerk to heel and keep him from interrupting. In fact, it seemed as if it was faintly possible that Kavanaugh was afraid of Booker. Which makes sense, especially if you believe as I do that the reason white policemen shoot Black men is because white bullies are afraid of Black men generally, and should be, because they owe them nothing and have nothing to lose.


Now I’ll bring this around to the #MeToo movement, which has brought out into the light the stories of what it is like for women in the mansion where most of us still live. #MeToo stories are usually individual stories. We need to go past that. I’m saying there are two other stories without which the stories of individual assaults and violence are incomplete.


One of these is the story of the mansion itself, by which I mean all the activities in all the different rooms, closets, hallways, basements and ballrooms where people who may think they play only a whisper or a shadow of a role nonetheless keep the building standing upright. Go back to the fine silver-haired doctor who didn’t give me a diaphragm; he was performing his role in the mansion, but you couldn’t exactly say he assaulted me, could you?


The second is the story of the men and boys who can see what’s wrong, can see the blows falling on the woman or girl next to them, but who just eat their own pain and fear being singled out by a bully if they speak up. The structure of the mansion, visible to women, is probably invisible to them; they bump into its walls and don’t understand where the doors are. They must experience something that makes them question what the value of being a man might be.


Ultimately, my husband and I calmed down last night by trying to figure out what could be done right now. He said, “Economic equality.” I said, “No, control over our bodies comes first.” Of course, that’s why the right wing wants Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court: to get rid of Roe versus Wade. So we agreed that the thing to do right now is to support Planned Parenthood. No wonder the Republicans want to de-fund it.


Enough for now. Thanks for reading all this.


Helena Worthen



Can the Sun Rise in the West? — August 11, 2018

Can the Sun Rise in the West?

That’s a line from Fan Shen — said by Kuomingtang reactionaries to scoff the idea that Mao’s revolution could ever really happen.


First annual Tommyfest.  Musicians from all over the area brought their instruments and jammed.  Four men went off into a quiet place to play.

Big wind, lightning, trees down; bursts of rain. The rivers come up fast. Out west, the wildfires are getting started three months early.


I have not written much because I am so ashamed of my country. Children coming across the border are taken from their parents and sent to detention centers — some in other states.  Huge demonstrations to protest this. A judge has declared that they have to be re-united, but they don’t have a  process set up.

I am not up to writing about grassroots democracy and how it can turn the tide.  Maybe later. Here is the brook below Pikes’ Falls.


Below, see if you can see the bird on the bird feeder.  A red dinner napkin around its neck.


John’s studio. He did the woodcuts a year ago, before the current publicity about the children at the border.


Bean. Where are we?

The Bean

Joe said, “She wrote for the ages.”  Winter after winter, she would sit in the living room with a small table set up with a typewriter and transcribe this manuscript.


The writer, my great-great grandfather Joseph Goddard, was so angry about slavery that he couldn’t stop writing, fighting, preaching, traveling all over western New England to rage about it. This was 1838, thereabouts. The first version of this manuscript was stolen, along with his clothes, out of a trunk on a trip he took to New York State, so he wrote it again. This is it.

Something else worth doing.


Tiepolo.  Feet as beautiful as hands.


Ladora, Iowa.

LAdora outside

This building was built to be a bank. It functioned as a bank for about 8 years during the 1920’s, when Iowa was an agriculture-based boom economy. Then it went bust. Today it stands out in the town (most of the town is in the picture) like a mausoleum. Inside, it is a bistro, serving high end “small plates” of very good tasty food, lots of wine and beer, no coffee or tea.  Inspirational homilies about thrift and integrity run around all four sides of the ceiling. Upstairs is a tiny “board room” where the decision to declare bankruptcy must have been made.


Five men playing croquet on the lawn. Three of them are lawyers. One is a union activist. The fifth works in tech.

5 men playing croq

Back in San Jose, the COCAL XII conference drew participants from Canada (Anglophone and Francophone) and Mexico as well as the US. Note headphones for translation. The equipment alone for translation cost $11,000 to rent. The Mexicans reported difficulties getting visas and additional surcharges when coming across the border in Tijuana.


Posters at the Museum of Mexican American Art in San Jose. So this has been going on for a long time.

Posters in SJ

In the meantime, reports from the primaries are coming in with results in some areas (Ohio, for example) that were sure-thing Trump areas now “too close to call.”  And Missouri put down a right-to-work law 2 to 1.

Here is Jovanka Beckles, who is running for the CA state legislature from our district. She is speaking at a fundraiser houseparty last week in Berkeley. She is a mental health caseworker from Richmond, CA and has been elected to the City Council there. Jovanka ran in a busy field against a stack of other local aspirants, and came in second in a very close vote, which enables her to run in the upcoming primary.  Her opponent, also a Democrat (this is a top-two election) is a white woman named Buffy Wicks, who was an Obama staffer, very young and has never held public office. But Buffy has Obama’s endorsement. Jovanka got the endorsement of all of the people who ran in the primary against her and takes no corporate money.


And then this, which I consider a good sign:






Czech Republic: More than castles and villages — May 9, 2018

Czech Republic: More than castles and villages


Our Lady of the Snows, in Prague

Baroque cathedrals, castles, apple blossoms, lilacs, forsythia and quince, winding rivers and rolling hills, broad fields of rape, pronounced “rap,” which is that intense yellow flower that I thought was mustard; the countryside is beautiful and we came just as the apple trees were blossoming.

Czechoslovakia was created out of the Versailles Treaty after WWI, as part of the strategy to break up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After that came a series of national traumas: Munich, when the Sudetenland (the western part of Czech) was handed over to Germany under Hitler. Then the surrender of the Jewish population in Hitler’s Final Solution, first into concentration camps and then to Auschwitz.  This included 95% of the Czech Roma population. At the end of WWII,  the one-third of the population that was German was expelled back to Germany (no matter how many generations they had lived in CZ). Then came the Communist period.  The period of opening after Khrushchev criticized Stalin, called “the Prague Spring,” was repressed in 1968 with Russian tanks rolling across the border into Prague. What a sequence of national traumas!  But now the Czech Republic, which split off from Slovakia, is among the most healthy economies in the EU with low unemployment and relatively low levels of inequality, although there is a heavy load of apathy towards anything political, almost a feeling of a white wall of silence. The old people, we are told, vote Communist; the young either vote ANO, a new party, or do not vote at all.

What is being displayed? What is the story? Who is telling it? For whom and why?

I come from a country that has done much evil and good in the world and is still doing it, too much, in fact — both the good and the evil. Many people in the US are concerned with how the story of our past is told, for whom, and how it will shape our future. I wrote a post about Christian Appy’s important book, American Reckoning, which explains how the national trauma of the Viet Nam War has shaped our sense of who we are. Museums and monuments are also ways of telling a story that is not individual but social or collective. In the US, the critical stories for us right now are about our experience of slavery; you can see how the telling of this story re-surfaces in the news every day, in one way or another. So I am interested in museums (and in tourist attractions that do not pretend to be museums, but that perform a function that mimics a museum). For example, Disneyland is a tourist attraction that does not pretend to be a museum, but it tells a story about what America is and was, and it is a persuasive story.The White Tower in Prague, part of the Castle, with its displays of armor and torture instruments, is another example of an attraction that is not exactly a museum. At the other extreme are museums like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which is really an archive and teaching and research institution, that tells a story about the American/Vietnam War that is so bound up with my own history.

These are the questions that I carry with me when I go to a new country and try to understand what is going on.

Here is a castle, Karlstejn, 30 K west of Prague:


View from the  entrance to the castle of Karlstejn. The winding road below leads past restaurants and souvenir shops down to the railroad station, about 30 minutes from Prague.

We are staying in Stranny, a village of 100 people near Benesov, where the Archduke Francis Ferdinand (the one who with his wife Sophia was assassinated in 1913, triggering the First World War) had his castle, Konopiste. We did not visit Konopiste: we were told, however, that it contains over 100 stuffed animals that the Archduke shot. But on the railroad platform there is a photo display about Ferdinand.

The display includes photos of the Archduke as a boy, as a handsome young man (doe-eyed, with a handlebar mustache), with a gun and a pheasant, also lying in a hammock, playing tennis, and dressed in his hussar uniform, which has a nipped-in waist and a lot of gold braid. Everything is in Czech except for one placard. One photo shows Ferdinand walking along near the railroad platform with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the caption says that “the public believed they were planning to go to war.” Soon after that, came the assassination. Inside the railroad station is a special separate waiting room, unfortunately closed right now,  where Ferdinand met with important visitors. On the platform there is a photo of Ferdinand and Sophie lying in state. In town there is a grand, castle-like brewery that makes Ferdinand beer.

From this train station in Benesov we can be in Prague in an hour or less. Coming home, we sometimes catch a bus and sometimes a taxi.

Not all castles and villages

We went east by train — the Pandolino, a beautiful fast train with good food — to Ostravo and then made short trips to Opava and Olumoc.

Ostravo was once known as the “Black City” because of the pollution. There were both coal mines and steel mills here. The mines were right under the city itself; there a football stadium that has sunk so much, because of the mines below it, that it can’t be repaired. The mines fed the steel mills which were basically coal gasification plants. Now all but one of the mills are closed. The air is clean, although you can still see the soot on the walls of some of the old buildings.

Green block.JPG

These are apartment blocks in Ostravo; built in the 1970s to house workers who were coming to work in the big steel mills and in the growing public sector (teachers, office workers), many of these were put up for private purchase after 1989. Our relative, a teacher, lives in a two-bedroom flat in one of these. It has windows on both sides, all new windows and doors, carpets and appliances, an elevator. There are perhaps 30 or 40 apartment blocks like this one, separated by paths and green spaces. Public transportation, schools, pubs, restaurants, playgrounds and supermarkets are all right there. Looking out her window we could see the elementary, middle and high schools.

So far, consensus from everyone we have talked with: taxes are high but healthcare is free, education is free, people have pensions, you get 3 years of maternity leave with a stipend from the state, everyone has paid vacations. Buses and trains go everywhere and are on time. What if you lose your job? You get unemployment benefits but you go to the social services and they have jobs for you. There are jobs. Everyone can get a job. To be evicted from your apartment the landlord must give two months notice; you also give two months notice if you plan to leave.

Also, everyone we talk to — which means people who speak English and are willing to talk – says the same thing about the Roma. They don’t work, they take money from the government, they steal.

These eastern cities have very spacious, dignified central areas. In both Opava and Olomouc the big central squares are surrounded by cafes and the cafes are full – although not the one in this picture! That particular cafe terrace did not open until later. The building in the rear is the Opera — they were doing Janacek’s The Little Vixen.

opava plaza

Town Hall square in Opava


Street in center city Opava, late afternoon

These cities are dignified, quiet, and calm; very few western tourists if any. They feel old but clean and not deteriorated. Lilacs are in bloom along the streets that circle around the central pedestrian area. corner of plaza

They are very serious about cakes and pastries.


We walked through the university neighborhoods of both Ostravo and Opava.  Of course, these are government-funded universities and we are told that they are “free” as far as tuition goes. So they do not try to attract fee-paying students or draw attention by building stunning Frank Gehry designs. This is true of Charles University in Prague, too, which is up on a hill south of the main railroad station: big, quiet, dark, maybe 5 floors high; gates leading into an interior courtyard.

A Museum from a Steel Mill:   Vitkovice Cylinders and Gearworks in Ostravo


This tank, which used to contain gas, has been turned into a giant concert hall. Music festivals take place here.

We were in Ostravo on May 1st, which is International Workers Day.  In Czech it is celebrated as a national holiday. To celebrate, many people do not go to work. One of the enormous old steel mills in Ostravo has been turned into a park. People can walk through the mill along paths that are signed in Czech and English to explain the manufacturing process. There is also a science museum on the site; the whole thing is like the Exploratorium in San Francisco, only with a real steel mill. One of the mines that supplied coal to the mill was right under the mill itself. That mine is also now a museum. A giant tower is named the Bolt Tower for the runner, Usain Bolt.


Just one small part of the giant steel mill that is now closed but re-invented as a park, with meeting places and restaurants and concert venues.

Part of the mill is actually still in operation. Vitkovice Gearworks and Cylinders manufactures railroad ties, tubes, tanks and canisters that will hold things like oxygen or other gases under pressure, things that will be come fire extinguishers (for example) or supplies for hospitals or other industries. These are shipped all over the world, including the US. Joe saw the labels on the shipping platforms. On May 1 people can walk through this part of the mill and see workers making things out of molten steel. Kids can see where their fathers and grandfathers worked.


Many of the older people in Ostravo worked in these mills; on this holiday they bring the grandchildren to see where grandpa worked. You are offered a hard hat at the entrance, but not many people take them. 


Inspecting cannisters; the guy on the right puts a torch into the opening; the guy on the left peers in from the bottom.

The part of the mill that is still functioning is open to the visitors to the park today. You can walk along carefully marked paths through the factory and see people working. In one area you can see long steel rods being heated, chopped into small chunks, melted, formed into balls and then rolled through a smoothing and cooling sequence. These are used for breaking down coal or rocks into gravel or dust; they are poured into something like a giant washing machine and rolled around.


At one end of the process, a giant jaw pulls a huge plug of molten steel out of a mold. Out of sight for me, this plug gets turns into long rods which are then chopped up into what will become balls.



I am posting many pictures of this because of how sharp the contrast is between the public access to a live factory in  Czech Republic and the US. I have visited two operating steel mills in the US (the Rouge in Detroit an the US Steel mill in Gary, Indiana) but both visits were as a guest of the union that represented workers there and in both cases, getting the invitation was difficult. Furthermore, private industry in the US often is behind fences and surrounded by a sea of parking, and may not even have a sign out saying what the name of the plant is. But in Ostravo you are invited to bring children within ten feet of a rube goldberg machine that is popping out molten balls of steel and cooling them in a sequence of tanks.

Near Ostravo is a park called Landeck, which was the site of a mine. They have kept the miner’s changing room and the work clothes are still hanging there. I saw a space like this once in Sudbury, Ontario, at the site of an enormous copper mine.

miners clothes

Another way the Czech celebrate May 1st is Walpurgisnacht; the night of burning witches, which would be the eve of May 1st. In Stranny the village men erected a high pole and then sat around on the terrace of our pension drinking beer. They were still awake and drinking when our host got up the next morning at 6;30 am. The idea is to keep watch so that the men from other villages do not steal your pole. Stranny’s pole was still there. It’s not really burning witches, apparently; it’s burning winter.

Museums, cathedrals, more castles

Yes, we went to the Castle in Prague. The Cathedral of St Vitus, which looms over not just the Castle but the whole city,  is astounding. This is an instance of a museum that is a treasure house.

St Vitus ceiling

All along the floor of the cathedral are chapels with elaborate religious sculpture and art. Every king or queen (or emperor) made a project of producing some fabulous contribution to the wealth and splendor of the cathedral. In the installation below, there are four flying angels lifting the curtains and they are all bigger than life-size.

St Vitus

The Jewish Quarter

This is the cemetery in the old Jewish Quarter, where some of the stone go back 400 years.

cmetery 1

The arched chambers of the lower floors of the old Synagogue are a memorial: the names of people who were killed during WWII under the Nazis are inscribed on the walls from floor to ceiling, arranged by family and region. Upstairs are more documents and a small narrow room dedicated to the drawings and notebooks created by the children at Theresienstadt, the model concentration camp that was shown to the Red Cross to demonstrate that the Jews were being well-taken care of.  There are artifacts of the art teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.


The Spanish Synagogue, nearby, has a museum with many documents displayed in glass cases. As I think about the line between a museum and a tourist attraction, this is a museum.  Here is a picture of the roof of the inside:

Spanish synagog

On the train to Benesov one night we sat across from a handsome young guy, about 17, who told us in pretty good English that he goes to the Jewish high school in Prague. It is connected to the museum and the old Jewish Quarter; they learn Greek and Latin as well as Hebrew. Right now he and some friends are translating a comic book into Yiddish for the fun of it. Their teachers are “the old people,” he said; the people who have memories and know history. They have done at least one trip to Israel.

The Museum of Communism in Prague

Of course we want to learn as much about the recent history of the country as possible, especially how it has managed since 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union.  We were already familiar with how that word “communism” is used in the US, including how it has changed over time during its long history and the ways in which it is confused with socialism. Then there is the way the word is used in Viet Nam, where the government is led by the Communist Party, which is entirely different from how the word is used here in the US by Vietnamese living here. Here, some of our conversations have made me think that the the word “communism” covers everything that is un-speakable and indicates a desire to forget. By contrast, for Vietnamese in the US, looking back on the years during and after the American war, there is a great deal of  active memory about what living under communism meant. Here in Czech it seems as if a veil is pulled down over the whole period from the end of World War II through 1989 when the Soviet Union fell and the Velvet Revolution — the peaceful handover to the government under Vaclav Havel – took place.

The Museum of Communism is not a research museum; it has a message to deliver. Most of the visitors in the museum were from the US or Europe.

The written placards are in English and Czech and they refer to the years under Communism using words like “depravity” and “cruelty” but they do not document in detail the experience that lies behind them. They tell about the rise of communism in a very simplified way, with placards about Marx and about the lives of poor working class people, but the story as told by the placards swiftly turns into denunciations. This is in striking contrast to the Jewish Museum that is full of photographs and copies of original documents about both the historic Jewish community and the Holocaust. It is true that this Museum of Communism is still new.  It moved into its new quarters only 6 months ago from its old location near the Post Office. (The guidebooks list the old address; we just happened to pick up a brochure that gave the new address but very little other information, as if it had been designed in haste, so we spent a lot of time poking around near the old address first before taking another look at the brochure.) Also, it is a private operation, not government-sponsored, and apparently the work of two Czech Americans cooperating with a Czech person.

However, in comparison with the written placards posted on display boards, a much richer story is told in long video interviews with people who remember the period of communism. I did not count how many of these there are, but there must be 40 or 50, and it is quite possible that each screen could have more than one interview on it. The images on the screens are life-sized and there are subtitles in English. These interviews are each at least an hour long and they give space for all kinds of different people: there is a room, for example, of six women, women with various kinds of jobs from farm work to office work. At the time of the interviews these women were, from the looks of it, in their 70s or 80s, so they are talking about a period of time when they were young and middle-aged. Elsewhere there are interviews with poets, writers, film makers, young people. These are in-depth interviews about the life experience of individuals. One can sense that as time passes, these people will not be around any more, so that increases the value of the videos. The ones I watched told about the experiences of dissidents: people who were denied permission to travel, whose children were not allowed to go to school, people who spent many years in prison. In the ones I watched, the people all talked about forms of resistance: meetings at cabins in the forest, performing theater in living rooms, and lots of writing.  As I have always been told, jokes and humor were a large part of the resistance.

This made me think about what museums I have seen that address a national trauma. There is of course the War Remnants Museums in Ho Chi Minh City. There are the big Jewish museums in Washington DC, the famous one in Israel, and a number in Germany. Auschwitz itself  is in Poland, only 2 hours east by car from Ostravo. There is a new museum in Montgomery, Alabama, that brings to life the lynchings of black people in the American South (https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/05/a-new-lynching-memorial-confronts-americas-history-of-racial-terrorism.html). We visited a small museum of the Anasazi in Northern New Mexico that has glass cases displaying the letters written to the US government trying to explain how the Anasazi and Hopi used land. The creation of such a museum, that tries to carry the story of a national experience, is an enormous, collective task that should take years and has to be ongoing.

From that light, the Museum of Communism is still very young. In Oakland, CA in the meantime, there is going to be a pop-up Museum of Capitalism in Jack London Square. https://portside.org/2017-06-17/new-museum-imagines-world-where-capitalism-dead. Based on the write-up, I’m afraid that the exhibits all seem to be ironic artifacts like WalMart shopping bags. We’ll see. Not an easy task.

Although the Roma population in Czech was 95% wiped out, there is not, as far as I can tell, a museum of that culture and population. http://romove.radio.cz/en/clanek/18913.  This is a museum that needs to be created.





A Walk in the Country — May 7, 2018

A Walk in the Country

village apple

Walking up through the village of Stranny to the road. We’ll go a few hundred yards along the road and then turn off on the hiking path. Apple trees were just coming into bloom, along with lilacs and forsythia.  Roads through the hills were planted with apple trees, one every 30 feet.


We walked from Skranny to Neveklov, following a hiking path that led along the edges of fields and through well-managed forests.


Sheep nibbled their way towards us.


We went through a gate into the forest. 


Joe climbed up to a lookout. 



We passed what turned out to be a hospital or residence for developmentally disabled adults. This is the new part. The old part appeared to be an old mansion, certainly dating from the 1900s. There were greenhouses with people working in them and residents strolling around. It was fenced but the gates were open.

100 year chestnuts

One way we guessed how old the hospital was was because these chestnut trees are at least 100 years old, and there is a whole avenue of them leading up to the main building.



The apex of our stroll was the town square of Neveklov, where there is an ATM, a movie theater, several restaurants, the town hall, a couple of markets and some other shops. there was also a small cucarna, or sweet shop (a coffee shop is a kavarna, and this one was both) that was selling black currant sherbert. We went in and had some. So did many other people; there was a constant stream of adults coming in for the sherbert, in cones.

3 birthday

This man is showing us the cake with which he will celebrate his 71st birthday. He does both Alpine and cross country skiing, plays football, doesn’t speak a word of English, and this is his grandson Jacob eating a vanilla and black currant cone. The owner of the shop spoke some English; when we wanted to ask a question, the other clerks would call to the owner, who was a very lively and cheerful, outgoing person.

2 cucarna

The outside of the ice cream shop. 

1 old house

We passed this old house on our way out of town. 

There were several things in this town that were marked on the map but which we couldn’t find; for example, the Jewish synagogue and also the Jewish cemetery. We found a cemetery near where the Jewish cemetery should have been but it was a Christian cemetery. Under the Nazi occupation, of course, Czechoslovakia rounded up Jews. Theresienstadt was in Czechoslovakia, Auschwitz only two hours east of Ostravo in what is now Poland. 

2 brook

On our way back, we entered the forest again and crossed a brook.

7 Hawthorn

In one area, the trees lining the path were hawthorns, buzzing so loud with bees that you could hardly hear yourself talk. 



Here is where we stayed.  The village of 100 people is called Stranny and this is the only inn.


Who can participate in “freedom of association”? Labor Notes 2018, Chicago — April 29, 2018

Who can participate in “freedom of association”? Labor Notes 2018, Chicago

Much too soon after we got back from Nepal, we went to Chicago for the Labor Notes conference.

Snow Chicago

Chicago (Oak Park), April 2018. A little red, a little blue. This is from the front steps of our friends Diane and Phil’s house.

One of my goals in this blog is to record instances of how people in the US gather at the grassroots level of political action. In other words, how we practice freedom of association. That’s different from “freedom of assembly,” which we in the US have in the First Amendment. Freedom of assembly refers to gathering for “peaceable” purposes for things ranging from a performance or celebration to a demonstration. If the gathering is large enough, it may require a permit.

Individuals and societies can lose freedom of assembly; I remember that during the apartheid period in South Africa, political activists could be banned from meeting with other people or traveling. In many other times and places a gathering of more than  3 people has been made illegal.

“Freedom of association” goes further: it includes joining or leaving an actual group,  the kind of group that might have continuity, a membership list, an explicit purpose. Freedom of association is one of the basic ILO conventions (and one that the US has not signed, but we won’t talk about that).  Freedom of association is the ILO convention that is the topic of much discussion in Viet Nam. It enters the conversation when people are talking about trade agreements such as the TPP. The question is whether freedom of association might lead to the formation of independent unions, unions other than and in addition to the VGCL, whether these unions would have enough strength to be effective or whether they would just be company unions.

I’m interested in the experience of freedom of association in the US at the very grassroots level of political action. What does it look like? Who can belong? What is the relationship of the experience of entry or exit at the margins with the process of decision-making on behalf of the whole group?


I participate at the bottom level in a variety of political groups that represent types of freedom of association. If you go back in this blog you’ll see photos of a Black Lives Matter event in Oakland, the two Women’s Marches (one right after Trump’s election), the general membership meeting of the Vermont Workers’ Center, a small house party fundraiser for a woman running for the Chair of the California Democratic Party, a general membership meeting of the Democratic Socialists in Oakland, and a meeting of the CalOSHA Board attended by workers from UNITE HERE where they agreed to the musculo-skeletal standards, and maybe others. I will also include a photo of the 2018 Labor Notes conference, which is why we are in Chicago in April right now.

Organizations that I don’t have a photo of are Our Revolution, which came out of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Indivisibles, which is a giant network of Democrats and other liberals that emerged and spread rapidly after Trump’s election. Joe and I are members of both, and have held and attended monthly neighborhood meetings of a combined group, but participation ranges from 6-12 people and our most recent attempt, a fundraiser for a woman who is trying to run for Alameda County District Attorney (no contested elections for that post in 60 years!) had to be cancelled for lack of participation. However, nationally both OR and Indivisibles are strong organizations. To belong to them, you do not have to do anything other than attend or perhaps pay a small membership fee. These are not representative groups, in other words: the people who are participating are not representing anyone else. They are there on their own hook, choosing to be there for their own reasons.

All these bottom-level political action gatherings assume freedom of association, a right that is disputed in Viet Nam. In the US, the right to organize and attend events like these goes without question because it is presumed to fall under “freedom of assembly”. Yes, to have a major parade or a big demonstration you’re supposed to get a permit, but they are usually granted. More recently, however, there is increasing fear of risks of attacks by opposing groups, like in Charlottesville, when right wing white supremacists attacked a civil rights-related demonstration. It is also true that pulling together a gathering for the purpose of clarifying, unifying, expressing and planning to act on a political agenda almost certainly draws attention from persons and organizations that oppose that agenda. Such persons might be the local police, the FBI, the CIA, a citizen’s vigilante group of some sort, more recently the various right-wing extremist groups, going back as far as anyone can remember. But we still assume that the right to hold such gatherings  — freedom of assembly, from the First Amendment – is fundamentally not disputed. The gatherings may be infiltrated or disturbed by provocateurs or filmed and reported, or actually violently interrupted, but people still think we have the right to hold them. This goes for gatherings of both right, left and other types of agendas.

In the last year, when right wing groups at the University of California Berkeley invited extreme right wing speakers to present on-campus, there was a loud argument about whether these events should be allowed to happen. In one case, the event happened and students pro and con marched down into central Berkeley where right and “anti-Facists” or “anti-fa” confronted each other, resulting in broken windows and some arrests. Another time the event was tightly circumscribed by limited permits.

How do these very porous, grassroots level associations make decisions?

Now, thinking about Andy Blunden’s book, The Origins of Collective Decision Making, how do these groups, as represented by the gatherings that I have attended and mentioned in these posts, make their decisions? Blunden finds four kinds of decision making. The first two are really “on behalf of” not “by” the collective. The first is cleromancy (consulting a priest, oracle, dice, lots or magic). The second is consulting, where a group advises the leader and then he or she makes the decision. The third and fourth are majority rule and consensus, but only the last two are really collective.

Ideally, in order for the third and fourth methods to function smoothly, the parties to the decision-making have to be equal. One person’s vote has to have no more or less weight than the next person’s. (I am condensing here.) But how do you establish or achieve that equality in an association? One way is to define who can be a member so that members are or less equal.  You could decide, for example, that only men who own property can vote. But what if it’s really a grassroots open organization, and the only qualification for membership is that you want to join or perhaps pay a small membership fee that is affordable. How does that affect decision-making within the organization?

So how does grassroots freedom of association work here?

To answer this question, I looked at various groups that I am “associated” with, one way or another. First, I decided to ask, “Who can participate?” Who can participate is determined by very concrete characteristics. It includes how the event or organization is publicized, where the event is held, and what goes on during the event. What happens afterwards may be different, but we’re just looking at events themselves. What does the very first threshold of association look like?

In the Black Lives Matter event in Oakland, word went out via email and Facebook and was spread around broadly. At the event, accessibility was highlighted. There was good disabled access with signs and plenty of room down front for wheelchairs. There was a whole section for people with allergies to scents. Someone was signing the whole program, and I’m pretty sure some of it was spoken in Spanish, and the rest was translated. So the message is: Everyone is welcome.

For the Women’s March, all you had to do was get there. You could step off the sidewalk and be part of the march. Everyone was encouraged to make a sign saying whatever you had to say. There was a section of the march set aside for organizations (unions, political groups, etc.) and it so happened that they filled up the official starting location, so everyone else just started marching ahead of the groups. At the first women’s march I went to there was disabled access that put me in the front row (I had just had knee replacement surgery) along with a lot of other interesting old women (mostly).

At the Democratic Socialists meeting, you had to be a member in order to vote. Being a member means signing up in advance and paying a membership fee of about $35. You could not vote at the meeting. This was a good way to prevent outside groups from storming the meeting.

At the CalOSHA meeting, you had to be a member of UNITE HERE to actually have a participated in the union’s share in getting the standard established. That means that you were hired by and retained by the employer, but your job security was protected by the union, so that once you were hired, you were fairly free to be active. Joe and I were able to appear at the meeting by signing in as “community,” because the community at large does have an interest in the welfare of workers. The membership of the Board depended on being appointed by the Governor, and it took a change in governor to get a change in the Board to produce a yes vote. So “who can participate?” regarding the Board does have its roots in mass electoral politics, but at a remove.

The Democratic Party, with its tangle of levels of representation, is a real mess. In addition to what I wrote about how the Chair of the California Democratic Party and how delegates to the Convention get elected, the news this morning was all about how the election campaigns of the various presidential candidates are completely separate organizations — to the extent of selling and renting their email lists to the Democratic Party itself.

The Vermont Workers’ Center is also an open group. You are supposed to pay a low-cost membership fee (I think it can be as little as $5 a month) but membership is open and meetings are open.

So participating in some of these, like the Women’s March, just involves stepping off the sidewalk or showing up. Others (like the Democratic Socialists) involve paying a membership fee and filling out a form. This is what the bottom grassroots level of political activity looks like. As you move further up the levels of involvement, the ways in which your voice or vote counts change.

Labor Notes in Chicago, April 2018

Back in the 1990s when I first started going to Labor Notes, the attendance was several hundred and we gathered in a hotel in Dearborn, Michigan. Six or eight years ago they started holding it in Chicago at the various airport hotels because it now brings in nearly 3,000 people. Participants are labor activists from all kinds of organizations, including unions, NGOs and political groups. Typically, if a union is engaging in some kind of internal democratic reform process, it will send leadership and as many rank and file as they can afford. The result is an intense Friday through Sunday exchange of ideas and strategies. There are panels and workshops and interest group meetings continuously, several general sessions, a banquet and a whole lot of side meetings going on. Many people rely on Labor Notes to get together with friends across the country. There is usually a substantial non-US presence, especially from Canada. This year there were Chinese, Phillipino and Japanese panels. I attended one panel on the militarization of anti-labor activity in China and Japan.

LN 1 About 3,000 labor activists of all kinds, not just union members — at the 2018 Labor Notes conference in Chicago. No one from Viet Nam was present, to my knowledge.

Labor Notes itself is not a membership organization. It is a combination of a newspaper (a good monthly newsprint paper, the only multi-union reporting in the US) and an annual conference. There are some regional conferences put on around the US known as Troublemaker’s Schools, where there are union skills trainings and general political education. The core group behind Labor Notes is a small political organization, Solidarity, and it is a membership organization, but it keeps a low profile compared to the big conferences and the newspaper, and no one seems to object.

Voting in Nepal

Here are two posters that I saw on a wall in the village of Dhumpas, in Nepal. These are put out by the Election Commission. They were probably put up during the last year, or even the last six months. The first one is to assure people that everyone should vote. The second one shows how you come to the central place to vote. Note the diversity of people in the first poster — people with wheelchairs, crutches, old people, men and women  – everyone except children. This message had to get communicated widely because this was the first election following the establishment of a national constitution, following over 20 years of revolution and internal war. People really didn’t know about voting and had to be shown what it would look like, in pictures.


Elect 2

Everyone is welcome; everyone is expected. Old and young, men and women. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, professionals and peasants, able and disabled.

elec village


Martin Luther King, 1965: Housing March in Cicero, Chicago

This march was intended to bring some of the power of the Civil Rights Movement north to Chicago where housing was notoriously segregated.

I will end this with some of work done by our friend John Pittman Weber, a Chicago artist who has done a lot of public art around Chicago. Below is one of three carved brick stellae from a monument to the march led by Martin Luther King jr. through Cicero, a suburb of Chicago. A gang of whites attacked this march and threw stones and bricks. One hit Rev King on the head and knocked him down. This is memorialized, life-size, in one of the other stellae. King’s head is at eye-level so you can easily reach out and touch him and wince along with him as the stone lands.

This would be an example of freedom of assembly under attack. Fifty years later, there is an official monument to the marchers, in a park.

JohnJohn Pittman Weber at one of the three stellae of the Martin Luther King Jr monument in Chicago.

Here is is studio, showing some of his recent prints:

JOhn studio



Hotel Ragunath, Jammu and Delhi — April 14, 2018

Hotel Ragunath, Jammu and Delhi

To see where Jammu is, look at


And for background: Kashmir, The Case for Freedom, Verso Press 2011 with chapters by Tariq Ali, Hilal Bhatt, Angana Chatterji, Habbah Khatum, Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy.

Ragunath hotelSee the little black and orange sign with the arrow, half-hidden behind the striped awning? That’s the sign to our hotel. It was down an alley about 6 feet wide. It was actually originally a grand hotel — probably quite elegant and fine at the time of Partition, in 1947. The ground floor had an atrium lobby open to the sky 4 flights up. However, right now it was under construction. The meant that almost everything other than the front desk, tucked under the staircase, and the stairs up to our room, was either draped in plastic or else cloudy with paint scrapings. Lead? Don’t ask. Stacks of marble to be installed as flooring or in bathrooms lay about. My imagination tells me that it was once a choice destination for pilgrims to the Ragunath Temple  (Hindu). One door to the Temple was across the street; the main door was a hundred yards up the nearby street. But this would have been back before Partition, and it had been let go ever since.

I walked up the street looking for a place to buy shawls. This is the shawl market, and every shop has shawls. I chose one at random, went in, sat with the shopkeeper, looked at several dozen and chose three. These are the long, wide embroidered cashmere shawls, not the more scarf-like pashmini shawls of Nepal. While I was sitting on the long bench waiting for the shop keeper to wrap my shawls, four men came in. They stood to my left, immediately next to me because the shop was narrow, but paid me no attention. One of them spoke with the shopkeeper. My eyes were drawn to this man because on his back was an extraordinary garment. It spoke of poverty more severely than anything I had ever seen. It looked like the inside of a man’s tailored suit jacket — the brown satin that might have lined a jacket many years ago – turned in reverse and made into a vest, the center seam stitched together with big stitches in green thread. It reminded me immediately of the poverty quilts you see in the midwest, mostly in museums but sometimes in people’s homes, made of scraps of different cloth, scraps saved from clothing that had provided warmth for many people but finally could not hold together any more but could still be pieced together with other scraps to make a quilt and provide some warmth in cold seasons. The same for this vest. I could only see this man’s back, but he was big and strong — sinewey, with big hands, and he was leaning forward to talk with the shopkeeper. The stitches down the back of his vest were in heavy green thread. The vest fit him like a second skin.  While they talked, one of the other men, a quite young man, also dressed poorly in rough brown loose clothing, came and sat beside me. He took a package off the shelf across from our bench and studied it. I could see that it was a combination kurti and trousers outfit, in a green paisley pattern, the kind of thing a woman would wear.

The conversation between the large man and the shop keeper became a bit heated and the large man finally made a gesture and all four men left the shop, quickly, without buying anything. The young man sadly put the package back on the shelf before they left.

When they were gone, I asked the shopkeeper who they were. “Poor Muslim laborers,” he said. “He wanted to buy cloth to make a uniform for his daughter, so that she could go to school, but he did not understand that the kind of cloth he wanted was of such poor quality that it would not last.”

I asked how much money a laborer of that sort would earn in a day’s work. He said, “Three hundred rupees.”  A little less than $5.

He said that the younger man had wanted to buy a costume as a gift for his wife, but was unable to.

India,which rules this part of Jammu-Kashmir, is moving increasingly into a Hindu nationalist cultural and political regime. The majority of people in Jammu-Kashmir are Moslem. The part of Kashmir that is in Pakistan is Moslem. Part of Kashmir is also claimed by China.

Ragunath Temple

We went to the Ragunath Temple, but you had to hand in your backpack, purse, everything including phone to get put in a locker before going in, so I have no photos of it. The front gate has a booth within which a soldier sits behind a gun, its barrel pointed straight out the grill at about shoulder level. Once inside, we found ourselves in a series of courtyards with small temples and various statues of gods and altars in them. Priests stood in each temple and showed us things and asked for donations; since my purse was in the locker, I could not do the donations.  One, a priest whose temple enclosed a gigantic (10 foot high on a pedestal) lingam which he poured oil, water and milk on and then pasted flowers on, gave us marigold garlands, asked if we were married, then gestured for me to kiss Joe’s feet, which I did very lightly. I think this was a marriage ceremony. He then asked for a donation.

We were puzzled by the arcaded rooms in the corners of the temple, which seemed to house flat beds of small stones, thousands upon thousands of them. Later we were told that these are fossils and that fossils are one manifestation of Krishna. Not knowing this, wandering through these cool, dark rooms with no other people, and looking at these stepped trays holding thousands of small round objects, we did not know what to think. I remember one of the Ursula LeGuin stories in “Changing Planes,” about a plane on which people never die; after several hundred or thousand years they have simply withered down to things that look like mushrooms or stones. Fossils, yes, but not living in this case. No pictures were taken of this, however.

After we dumped our stuff in our room, we found a taxi to take us to the theater. We had a certain visibility as the only foreigners in sight and the young people who were running the festival found us a table to sit at and brought us some food and talked with us. They are not drama students; one is a dentist, another a businessman. They are volunteering at the festival.
Jammu producers

This man is the technical director for the theater. He told us about the ancient theatrical traditions of India and drew pictures of three types of stages that are described in texts 3,000 years old — the Aristotles of India.


I was surprised that the theater was not sold out every night — although since the tickets were free, sold out isn’t the right word. Later I wondered if this project in Jammu was not part of a “confidence building” project — which would be consistent with the fact that all the actors, from all the companies, were put up at the government hotel, the Ashoka.

One night after seeing a play we got back to our hotel and were trying to see if we could get something to at. The it turned out that a hole-in-the-wall space on our alley, where a man had been busily scrubbing metal trays this morning, had been turned into a restaurant and was now open and cooking. So we went in. We had just sat down and ordered “thali’ which mean a plate of various things when these women came in. I couldn’t stop myself — I  said, “What beautiful women!”  out loud. They came over and we took pictures of each other but there were no words — zero words! in common for us to talk with  each other. They stared at me and I stared at them. I have shown this picture to people in India an asked them who these women are — sisters? Are they old or young? And all people can say is that they are from North India.

beauti women

This man might be a brother or the husband of one of them. Great picture-taking took place.

3 women selfie

And this guy, who said he publishes a magazine called “Revolution,” but it is about tourism.

tourism rev

One day we took a taxi and drove around the city. The driver took us to a palace on a cliff top over looking the Tawi River where there was a palace with, among other things, a giant gold throne and a room full of miniature paintings of the story of Nala and Damayanti. I can’t find copies of these miniatures on line anywhere, and there was definitely a sign forbidding photographs. But just imagine, over 100 miniature paintings. In several of them you can see Nala entering Damayanti’s court, only he’s invisible — you have to look so hard to find him!! He is drawn in faint sharp pencil lines.


We also were taken to a wild animal park where we saw leopards, but they were asleep, and to a hilltop water park where kids and teenagers played in and out of the  running water.water park 2


water park

I’m going to skip to Delhi where we stayed in a B&B in this “colony,” a gated neighborhood, and ate our only expensive Indian meal at a restaurant in Connaught Square. air B&B 2

Our AirB&B was in the top floor of the building on the corner. The hosts, or owners, were a mixed Indian-French couple that lives part time in Paris and owns numerous AirB&B properties. 


A street in one of these gated communities or colonies.

Delhi is a place where one could be very comfortable. If you were a British colonial, coming back to London after living in India would be a terrible let down. India, at least the part of Delhi that we saw, just roars with wealth. One of the B&B hosts told us proudly that he has five maids: One to cook, one to sweep and dust, one to change the beds and do the laundry, one to clean his car and one to shop.  Miles and miles of parkways thread through walled precincts behind which seem to be government offices, a golf club (right in the city), military barracks, and otherwise huge houses — among them the Mother Teresa complex which is as big as anything else. These parkways intersect in enormous roundabouts planted with brilliant flowers. I chose our Air B&B’s based on location, but I got the scale wrong; what I thought was walking distance was 10 kilometers. Connaught Square itself is vast. Below is a restaurant where we had our only elegant fine dining in India. It was indeed really wonderful.

fine dining

It was very easy to imagine what it might have been like to be a British colonial in India when India belonged to Britain. The wealth of this country would have seemed like an endless feast. No wonder they called it “the Jewel in the Crown,” and referred to Mountbatten as “the man who lost India.”

I was unable to take any photographs of the Red Fort that would have begun to indicate how big it is. The street facade alone was 3 kilometers. Inside, the vast gardens were full of families strolling, sitting on benches, or spread out in groups on the grass. As usual, we were nearly the only Westerners, but here, unlike in Jammu, no one tried to take our photo — we were not “giraffes.” The Red Fort is the place from which the Peacock Throne and the Kohinoor Diamond were stolen by the Persians. At this point, my ability to describe just flags.

Back to the US on an endless China Southern flight, with long stopovers in Guangzhou and Wuhan, involving standing in line to enter and then, soon, to leave China. Wuhan, which I knew nothing about, is enormous.


Anne Frank’s Diary at the 8th World Theatre Olympics in Jammu and Delhi — April 1, 2018

Anne Frank’s Diary at the 8th World Theatre Olympics in Jammu and Delhi


About a year ago, Deborah Merola and Rajkumar Pandasani submitted a video of the One World Theatre’s production of Anne Frank’s Diary to the Eighth World Theater Olympics competition. It was accepted for the 2018 festival, to be presented at two of the eleven festival sites, Jammu and Delhi. The World Theatre Olympics is a vast event that takes place every four years. Countries compete to host it, and the Greek government oversees it. It lasts from mid-February through early April, staging over 50 performances including plays, classical, ancient and experimental, and dance and music events. For winning entries, the Indian government pays transportation and expenses for the entire cast and crew to come.

Deb poster

The poster announcing One World Theatre’s production of Anne Frank, one of many erected along the drive into the Abhinav Theater in Jammu. The theater itself can be seen behind trees in the rear. The red carpet is an outdoor performance space where dances, music and village plays were performed. 

We went first to Jammu, which is in the northwest of India, right along the border with Pakistan. The Kathmandu -Delhi- Jammu flight passed along the south side of the east-west range of the Himalayas, which seemed to go on forever. The size and beauty of those mountains is beyond anything I imagined. The peaks extend into the distance as if they cover a whole planet. Yet people live right up close to them — in tiny villages, farming on terraces. The area is called Jammu-Kashmir, or J-K.  Kashmir is up in the mountainous part.  As we descended into Jammu we were above a wide flat plain.  I could see that the land was laid out in villages surrounded by tilled fields. The river courses are natural despite the fact that in monsoon season they must swell over their banks.

village and fields

Kashmir is said to be the most beautiful place in the world. At one time it was going to be “the Switzerland of Asia”. But then came the Partition, in 1947. India and Pakistan were divided along the Line of Control, hundreds of thousands of Hindus fled east to India and Muslims west to Pakistan, and the contested border between Pakistan and J-K, as people call it, became a low-level but persistent war zone. In fact, just now as I looked up “Line of Control” I saw that there was firing on villages in the general Jammu District last night. The report said that women and children ran; men stayed in the villages to watch the animals.The word used by people we met in Jammu to describe this fighting was always “terrorists.”  They were never “Indians” or “Pakistanis” or Hindus or Muslims. It was always just “terrorists.”  Apparently at night the India side of the whole Line is illuminated by a line of lights that is visible from space.

So in Jammu, despite the presence of the Theater Olympics, there were no Western tourists that I could see. Our hotel keeper knew the Abhinav theater (he said there was only one theater in Jammu) but not that the Olympics was happening there. I was not able to buy a SIM card because it is not allowed to sell them to “people from outside” “because of terrorists.” In fact, the security at the airport exceeded anything I have ever experienced. Entering the airport on our way out of Jammu heading back to Delhi my bag was x-rayed five times. I also looked up Jammu and Kashmir on travel.state.gov, the US travel advisory, and saw that this is a “Do not travel” area. No wonder! On the other hand, the absence of foreigners was wonderful in many ways. No Starbucks, no western chains of any kind. No Uber. And perhaps because large, old white people were so rare, many families wanted to have their pictures taken with us so when we went out we were constantly being embraced and pulled into family photos, with lots of smiles and thank you’s.

This is all to set the scene at the Abhinav Theater where One World Theater would perform The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Troupe as a Traveling Unit

The One World Theater was founded in 2011 and many of the people involved have been together since then.  They haven’t worked for One World exclusively; there are five “real” — meaning live – theaters in Kathmandu, and people work around in them and in film whenever the opportunities arise. No one in Nepal can make a living working for just one theater. But these actors have cycled in and out of different productions with each other over the years. This means that they have taken on different roles with each other, not just as actors playing different characters but also as stage hands, designers, lighting techs, house managers — all the different jobs that have to be done in order to put on a play. They have both grown together as a group and been able to incorporate new people as time goes by — the actress who played Irina in Three Sisters, for example. Over time, they have become a core group almost like a repertory group.  Traveling together, therefore, did not present the kinds of difficulties that, for example, a touring group of strangers might face.

The whole troupe, fifteen people altogether, gathered at the Kathmandu airport early Tuesday morning. As far as people who would face or not face physical difficulties getting through airports and into and out of planes goes: on the one hand there was Rojita Buddhacharya who would play Anne, and who would leave Delhi immediately after the performance to go join a team of women journalists (she is a science writer herself, with a bi-weekly TV show)  who were planning to summit Everest. On the other hand there was Rose Schwietz, the director of Three Sisters, who was just barely recovering from bad tonsillitis. Then there was Loonibha Tuladhar, who would play Mrs. Van Daan, along with her husband Gopal Aryal who would play Mr. Van Daan; they were bringing their very lively, very cute 3-year old in his stroller. Then there was Alize Biannic, who would play Margot, who had had an important career as a ballerina which was abruptly ended when a dance partner dropped her, crushing her knee. She would be walking slowly, with a cane, or using a wheelchair getting out to the plane.  Alize played one of the body doubles for Natalie Portman in The Black Swan, so her dancing legs, intact, have been immortalized — she would tell this as a kind of joke on herself, without any indication of regret, although it must have been terrible to lose that gift.  Therefore the group as a whole would sometimes straggle, sometimes come together, but in a certain way, just as on stage everyone was aware of where everyone else was, they never lost anyone.


Rose airport

Rose Schwietz, only partly recovered from tonsillitis, pushing the prop box through the airport. Behind her, Gopal, father of the 3-year old, and Sajag Rana who would play the dentist, Mr. Dussel.

Raj prop box

At the check-in counter it turned out that the prop box was too heavy; it had to be repacked before it could get checked as baggage. The set design was realistic: props had to include frying pans, enough plates for everyone, empty liquor bottles, and kitchen equipment.

And we re-convened first in Delhi, where we had a layover, and then in Jammu, where a government van arrived to take the troupe to the Ashoka, a government hotel some distance from the city center. Joe and I followed the troupe to the Ashoka and then took a different cab to our hotel, about which more later in a different post, deep in the Hari Shawl Market and near the famous Ragunath Temple itself.

A Different Kind of Play: Not Chekhov

Deborah Merola describes The Diary of Anne Frank as a “well-made play.” This does not just mean that it is well-written; it means that it belongs to a certain genre of play that drew on the classical principles of Aristotle’s poetics adapted to become the standard for popular European plays of the 19th century. “Well-made plays” are carefully structured and written to build suspense, using something that the audience and maybe one characters already knows to create a feeling of dread and sympathy for the characters, whose lives are moving inexorably towards a crisis. In this case, both the audience and the character Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, know that the whole family — Jews in Amsterdam, hiding from the Nazis in an attic in a Gentile friend’s office building – is going to get found, seized, and shipped off to concentration camps and killed.

What links the crisis to the drama of the play is Anne’s diary, left behind after the family is taken. Mr. Frank is visiting the attic where the family spent nearly two years in hiding; he finds the diary, opens it to read, and the play proceeds from there. The audience has to know something about World War II, the Nazi persecution of Jews, and  the ultimate outcome of the war in order to understand what is going on, but there is enough expository dialog in the play to fill in other necessary details. The rising drama of the actual play is the coming of age of Anne, who is 13 when the play opens and 15 when it closes. She struggles with her anxious mother, opens her heart to her father and sister, and falls bit by bit in love with the shy, sweet but timid boy Peter, played by Amrit Dahal, the son of the Van Daan family who share the cramped hiding. They finally have a private conversation with each other, together in his room — with the door shut, despite her mother’s plea — before the end comes.

One way in which the play differs clearly from the Three Sisters in terms of the demands on actors is that the actors move the action forward directly in their dialog. When a character is worried about something, they say so out loud: they wonder where Miep (played by Pooja Lama) is, why she’s late, whether they should answer the phone or not, what time dinner will be. They say what they feel: I am so ashamed, my mother doesn’t understand me, I am hungry, etc. They do not have to create the story line through physical gestures or whole-body movements that confirm or contradict what they or someone else is saying.

This should mean that this is a good choice for an English language play at this festival: lines, clearly and loudly uttered, should be understandable to an audience with some English ability. English is the common language in India in the sense that government business takes place in English, but I was told that there are at least 17 “official” other national languages, and many more that are not official.

Another way in which The Diary of Anne Frank is unlike Three Sisters, which is really about everyone in the play, this play clearly has a main character, Anne. Her beautiful childishness and her personal development is completely open to us, both through her diary (which works to communicate directly with the audience almost like the monologues in Hamlet) and through her actions onstage as she moves from what she is thinking into something she decides to do. Sometimes she surprises us, as when it turns out she has been all along making Hanukah presents for everyone and gives them out as gifts at the Hanukah dinner, astonishing the other characters as well as the audience, but most of the time our emotions track her experience. The actor playing Anne, Rojita Buddhacharya, captures the beauty and innocence of Anne perfectly. Her growing love for Peter is reciprocated eloquently by the actor Amrit Dahal, who plays the character as so shy that he seems to peek out from his own eyes.

Apparently last year, during the first production of this show, Rojita was much smaller and lighter than she is now, and therefore could easily taken to be a young girl; this year, she has been training to summit Everest and is, if not any taller, a lot stronger looking. However, by the magic of theater, she still conveys Anne as a very young girl.  The other women on her Everest team are fellow journalists; she herself has a bi-weekly science TV program in Nepalese.

Preparation for the performance

The day after we arrived, Deborah and Rajkumar came down to the theater and had a meeting with the technical crew of the theater. Meetings were outdoors around tables under the trees. Hemanta Chalise, who played Kulygin in Three Sisters, will be the stage manager for Anne Frank and is in this picture, listening. There will only be one tech rehearsal and it will take place immediately before the performance, so there will just barely be time to get, for example, the lighting plan in place.  The technical director of the theater is the man in the striped linen kurti who is sitting with his back to me. Earlier, he had come sat at a table with me and Joe and sketched out the shapes of theater stages from the written documents of Indian classical theater, 3,000 years ago.

The measurements and specifications for the Anne Frank set had been sent down to the theater in advance and built on-site. For something that has to be built and set up and then taken down after one performance, it’s a big set: three acting spaces (Anna’s room, the living room-kitchen-dining room in the center, and Peter’s room) separated by doors that have to open and close.

Raj tech mtg Jamm

That afternoon, Joe and I went to a production of Of Mice and Men, put on by a theater group from Rajasthan, in Rajasthani. The moment the play opened the intensity, the wildness of the performance was at boiling hot level. It felt almost operatic, in the sense of big gestures and multi-octave vocalizations, as if some style of some kind of classical training had been applied to this show which in productions I have seen elsewhere is a kind of small, sorrowful tale about people with few choices and few opportunities to love. An example is the scene in which the workers drink and dance. The last time I saw this performed in the US, the workers did a kind of shy, inhibited square dance, men dancing awkwardly with men. Here in Jammu the actors playing Rajasthani workers jumped and leaped and waved their arms exuberantly, with no problem at all about men dancing with and around other men.

mice and men

This is the curtain call for the Rajusthani language production of Of Mice and Men. George is the actor with the red scarf, standing by the hay bale. Lennie stands behind him. One of the comments from the audience afterwards was that in the script, Lennie is supposed to be a big guy. The actor who plays Lennie in this production is tall and skinny; you can see him standing behind (not to the side of) George. When Lennie goes off, worked up into a frenzy, he starts to hop and spin and takes up a great deal of space with his flying arms and legs, as if he is exploding. So it is his craziness that is frightening, not his size. 

The hall was not full, despite tickets being free. There did not seem to be any publicity around in the city. The older members of the audience were all men, as far as I could see. There were some women present but most of them were young, student-age, and seemed to have official roles with the theater, as volunteers, ushers, technical workers, etc. The same situation would be the case in Delhi, with the difference that tickets were not free and weirdly, you had to buy them on line and get your ticket confirmation texted to your mobile phone; there were no paper tickets.

So the One World Theater production took place after one tech rehearsal. There was not time enough to really work out the lighting, so that at one point Anna was reading her diary out loud in the dark. However, despite the fact that the actors were still recovering from their various illnesses, crises or just travel weariness, the show went on and ran smoothly.  It was not a brilliant performance, but everyone did a good job and it was good enough, and people gave it a standing ovation at the end.

After the show Deborah and Rajkumar were called to the stage for a Q&A.

Deb and Raj onstage Jam

Deborah and Rajkumar in a post-show discussion onstage.

Below is one of the village plays, done outdoors on the red carpet. These were all done in the multiple languages of India. I sat next to a young woman who told me the plot of one of these: an old grandmother tries to get her daughter-in-law to abort a female child; the town rises up against the old grandmother. The old grandmother is played by an over-the-top comic male actor.

village play 1

On to Delhi

In Delhi, the Olympics took place at the National School of Drama, the NSD. Below is a food court, surrounded by booths with all kinds of Indian foods and handicrafts. In the rear is another outdoor stage where dances and drumming were performed. There were two regular theaters within a short walk of this School itself where the staged plays were performed.

food ct

This time the Anne Frank performance benefited from the continuing recovery of the actors, plus a smaller stage which meant a tighter set, giving a stronger sense of the degree to which the characters are really trapped in a small space for months on end. Again, the audience did not fill the hall – perhaps due to the lack of publicity and the difficulties about buying tickets, which were only available on the same day, on line or via cell phone. But the response was enthusiastic and the actors delivered a strong play.

After the show was performed, people had a day to relax, go and see other plays, and eat and sleep.

Rose and Hermanta

Here are Rose and Hemanta, relaxing on the day when they did not have to perform or work.

I have not written much about what Joe and I did in this post; that will come next. Mainly, I found AirB&Bs and was able to download and use Uber.

Back to Kathmandu: Planning for the year ahead for One World Theater

Back in Kathmandu, Deborah Merola, Rajkumar Pudasaini, Rose Schwietz, Amrit Dahal and Bruno Deceukelier met together at the Amore Guesthouse to talk about planning for next year. Deborah and Rajkumar are Co-Artistic Directors, Rose is Managing Director and has also been Director and actor; Bruno directed The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later and is slated to direct Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde; and Amrit Dahal is the manager of the budget.

planning 2

In this meeting, the group was discussing the next season, including dates, what was going to be produced, people’s schedules and, of course budget along with potential funding sources for each play.

planning all 5






Chekhov’s Three Sisters at One World Theatre in Kathmandu — March 30, 2018

Chekhov’s Three Sisters at One World Theatre in Kathmandu

One World Theatre is a performance group that puts on a regular season of plays in English and Nepalese in Kathmandu, Nepal.  We came to Nepal because my friend Deborah Merola, founder of One World Theatre, is taking a production they did a year ago — The Diary of Anne Frank –  from Nepal to the Eighth International Theater Olympics in India. This is the first time the Olympics have been held in Southeast Asia. The One World Theatre submitted a video of their production and it was accepted at this huge festival, along with plays from many other countries. We believed that this would be a unique opportunity to see something of India and Nepal through the eyes of someone who is working there and knows the people and the country.

We met Deborah in Nepal, where her theater had another production, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, running at the time we arrived.

We went to see it our first night in Kathmandu. I found it hard to concentrate, so I asked if I could come again the next night and watch both the play and the rehearsal. Even through my jet-lag haze, something about the production struck me as especially moving. Perhaps it was because my expectations had to adjust to seeing dark, young Nepali actors with strong accents playing Russian characters from the 1900s, overtaking this very pre-revolutionary Russian situation and claiming it for contemporary Nepal. The characters were dressed in contemporary western costumes appropriate to a middle-class family and their friends of a professional class like teachers and government officials, but they could have been Nepali, too. Masha, for example, the married sister, wore her hair in a kind of punk, pointy cut.

Chekhov is one of my favorite writers and Three Sisters especially is a favorite play, for reasons I will explain below. So I was excited when the director, a young woman from Minnesota named Rose Schwietz, said I could come to  rehearsal the next night, see the play a second time, and take some photographs.

Warm-ups, exercises, crises and other preparations before the show starts

Rose and Raj

Actors warming up before the evening’s 5:30 pm performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, done in English, Friday March 16, 2018.  

The way Chekhov writes a scene, the drama (in the sense of the story or plot) moves forward through side comments and sudden brief speeches that seem to come out of no-where. At any given moment, some characters are paying attention to what is going on and some are oblivious, in complete denial but going along with their lives. For example, in Three Sisters the threat that is uttered by Solyony in the first act is disguised as a joke and no one seems to pay attention; then in the last act, it becomes realized in the duel between Solyony and Tuzenbach.  In order to keep so many people on stage from being just a crowd or a jumble, the actors have to know where the story is being told, who is carrying it at that moment, and follow it, playing against the very true-to life, realistically fragmented dialog. It is not like creating a stage picture; it is more like keeping a flow going.

Rose Schwietz opened the rehearsal with a warmup exercise  for the actors that seemed intended to create this feeling of flow and awareness. Later, she explained to me that she based this exercise on an approach called Viewpoints. She began by telling the actors:  “Start by walking fluidly and entering the spaces, finding doors; find doors and step through them. You have the possibility of changing direction, stopping, starting…” The effect was to create spaces that were not only the spaces on the stage; they were the spaces between and among other actors and they changed constantly. The actors moved in different tempos, sank, scuttled, followed, hopped and dropped, avoided each other, blocked each other, walked in fast or slow motion, copied each other, huddled up. First the whole company did it, then five together, six together, and another five.  The photo at the top shows this exercise.

Putting so many people on stage together and encouraging them to move swiftly among each other requires them to be highly aware of each other and respond to each other. This seemed particularly useful for a Chekhov play, where there are often seven or more people on stage.

Then came vocal warmups, with everyone standing in a circle.  Then makeup and costumes.


The actors apply makeup for each other. 

As the play opens, the characters Masha and Irina are found lying on the couch. It is Irina’s 20th birthday; funny hats are on the table and balloons float around and roll across the floor. Olga, the oldest sister, will be with them. Masha hardly says a word for pages and pages in the script; everything about how she is feeling is communicated by her gestures.


Here, shortly before curtain, the actor playing Solyoni (the character who later shoots and kills Irina’s husband-to-be in the last act) participates in a discussion of a crisis that has emerged: the person in charge of sound has not arrived yet. He has to be replaced. The stage manager stepped in as lighting technician. 

The Characters and the Cast

In a town in Northern Russia, somewhere colder than Moscow, live the three Prozorov sisters: Olga, the oldest, played by Kurchi Dasgupta; Masha, the middle sister, played by Kavita Srinivasan, and Irina, the youngest, played by Samapika Gautam, who is really only 18. Masha describes the town as being “somewhere where it’s always about to snow.”

They have a brother, Andrei, played by Bijay Tamrakar and an elderly house servant, Anfisa, played by Surabhi Sapkota. Surabhi is the person shown in the photo above, getting her makeup done.

A friend of the family, a long-ago admirer of the sisters’ deceased mother, the doctor Chebutykin, is played by Rajkumar Pudasaini, a Co-artistic Director of the theater and principal actor. His still-alive love for the girls’ mother, often emerging as sudden and sometimes excessive tenderness toward Irina the youngest daughter, is one of the forbidden passions in the story.

A regiment of soldiers has been stationed in the town. Some of them treat the home of the Prozorov girls as a social gathering place. Among them is Tuzenbach, a Baron, played by Utpal Jha, and Solyony, played by Sandeep Shrestha. Sandeep is the actor standing behind the couch in the photo above. The soldiers come, eat, lie around, flirt and bring a breath of the big world, including Moscow, with them. Then they leave.

A new commander of the regiment arrives and pays a visit during the first act: Vershinin, in this case Vershinina, played by Rose Schwietz. In the original, of course, Vershinin is a man; in this production, after four actors dropped out of the role for different reasons, Rose decided to do it herself, making Vershinin a woman and her love affair with Masha a lesbian affair. This was an astonishing but completely credible choice, and it shifts the emotional center of the play because there is a scene, covering a set change, in which the two women embrace and kiss each other. This is the only happy, tender sex that takes place in the play. All the other passions are repressed: Solyony’s hungry, hyper-attentive adoration of Tuzenbach, Chebutykin’s unrequited love for the girls’ mother, and even Tuzenbach’s unrequited love for Irina, all of them fail to be fully expressed, shared or even acknowledged. Of course, there is Natasha’s giddy affair with Protopopov but as played by Pooja Lama, the affair is more like revenge than love or passion.

Then there is the headmaster of the local school and husband of Masha, Kulygin, played by Hemanta Chalise. The fact that Masha is having an affair with another woman makes Kulygin’s desperate insistence that all is well and that he is happy even more poignant. There is also local official, Ferapont, played by Sandesh Shakya, an almost completely comic role except that he is quite deaf (which is treated as a joke by the other characters, and then reversed and made pathetic by the kindness of Anfisa who takes him into the kitchen and gives him things to eat.)

Andrei, the brother, has a girlfriend. His sisters make fun of Natasha’s clothes and speech, and scorn her as a village girl, but he marries her and she becomes the mother of his children, taking over the management of the house in the process. She is played by Pooja Lama. Pooja pushes the greediness and bossiness of this character to the very edge, and becomes the actor who carries the play the most in the direction of comedy. Her character becomes quite horrible, but not in the way the sisters foresaw. Andrei himself says of her, on the one hand, that she is a good woman, but on the other, that there is “something not quite human” about her.

Smaller parts include Emily, played by Anu Dahal; Fedotik, played by Rajen Thapa; and Rhode, played by Kundoon Shakya.

An important person who has a role in the action but never appears on stage is Natasha’s lover, one Protopopov, head of the County Council. She carries on with him behind Andrei’s back and perhaps they have happy sex but given her attitude, probably not; probably something more like a cat fight.

All the actors are Nepalese except for Kurchi Dasgupta and Kavita Srinivasan, who are Indian, and Rose Schwietz, who is from Minnesota.  Most are young, in their twenties or early thirties; the oldest is Rajkumar Pudasani, who is in his early forties. Some are students, some work full-time at regular jobs, some do film work or perform with other theater groups.


Kurchi Dasgupta, who plays Olga, the eldest sister. This photo was taken after a long hot day painting on Bev Hoffman’s Wall of Hope mural at the Himalayan Hotel. 


Rajkumar Pudasaini carries the role of Chebutykin as if it was a heavy coat of suffering. At the same time, he can make a laugh line out of nearly nothing; he invites the audience to laugh at him as a form of relief even while being pathetic. He is a very physical actor — often leaning far to one side or the other, crossing the stage quickly at an angle, swinging his legs open and spreading his arms as he sits on a couch, cocking his head sharply. He is only in his forties but he is playing a doctor in his sixties who drinks too much (in one scene, is is actually drunk and out of control). The character no longer trusts his own skill as a doctor; with the loss of his skill, he loses his trust in the meaning of everything else. For Irinas’ birthday present, he gives her a samovar, more appropriate for a wedding present than a 20-year old girls’ birthday. He’s aware and deeply embarrassed by his gift as soon as he sees his action through the eyes of the others at the party, as if he knows it reveals the way he has mixed up his love for the mother and the daughter. Later in the play, when Masha asks him if her mother loved him back, he pauses a moment, lifts a hand as if to touch a butterfly in the air, and shrugs, saying “I don’t know.” This line draws a laugh out of the audience but loses none of the pathos of the truth he is admitting.

In the last act he says “It’s nothing,” over and over again – another example of a character saying words in the dialog which both the character and the audience know to be lies. In fact, what is “nothing” is the critical act of the whole play, the consummation of Solyony’s passion in the challenge to the duel which will kill Tuzenbach. Rajukumar plays against the literal meaning of the words “It’s nothing,” in a way that requires the audience to distrust him even as he speaks emphatically.

Rajkumar is in the green T-shirt in the center of the first photograph, above, doing the warmup flow exercises. He is forehead-to-forehead with Rose Schwietz. In my previous post there is a link to the YouTube video of Arjuna’s Dilemna, in which Rajkumar played Arjuna.

The Story Itself: Four years go by and what happens?

The story is told in four acts. In the first act, the three sisters are celebrating the birthday of the youngest, Irina, who has just turned twenty. She is bursting with happiness and hope, but all three sisters really yearn to go back to the big city Moscow where they spent their early childhood. Their father died last year; their mother has been dead a number of years. Masha, the middle sister, is frustrated with everything. Olga, the oldest sister, is teaching at the high school and is tired all the time. Their brother Andrei, a heavy set loner who plays the violin, is in love with Natasha, whom the sisters laugh at for her unsophisticated taste and speech. Tuzenbach and Solyony have come to celebrate Irina’s birthday, along with Chebutikyn.

In this middle of this first act, Vershinin, the regiment commander, drops by to introduce himself — or herself, in this case. She talks in a sophisticated and elegant manner, and Masha suddenly realizes what an attractive person this visitor is. This is the situation at the end of the first act. In this production, there are two same-sex passions. Masha and Vershinina seem to slip easily and unchallenged into a passionate, physically consummated relationship, and the ultimate outcome is a sad farewell but not the end of the world for Masha. She says, “You get your happiness in bits and pieces.” She at least has had the experience of passionate love. By contrast, Solyony harbors a desperate but completely closeted love for Tuzenbach, expressed only through his twisted, annoying jokes and infantile remarks, tolerated but mostly ignored by Tuzenbach, and the ultimate outcome is the duel in which it is in fact the end of the world for Tuzenbach, who is killed.

The fourth act is four years later. What has happened? That is, what is the story? Irina is four years older and not happier. Olga is now headmistress and even more exhausted, Masha has been having a love affair with Vershinina right under the deliberately unseeing eyes of her husband Kulygin, and Andrei’s young wife, Natasha, who in this production wolfishly gloats over her control over the household, has thrown Anfisa out. Luckily, Olga gets a place to live along with her new job and Anfisa has moved in with her and has her own bedroom. In a very sad scene about the lessening of expectations, Olga persuades Irina to marry Tuzenbach, who has proposed to her, and Irina acceeds, although she is not in love.  Tuzenbach plans to resign from the military and become a manager of a brick factory in an even smaller town. The regiment is leaving; the soldiers, who have formed the social world of the sisters, are going away. Vershinina is going away, too, and has not apparently encouraged Masha to run off with her. Somewhere off stage, between the acts, there has been an encounter involving threats and violence: “It’s nothing!” exclaims Chebutikyn.  But it’s not nothing.  Solyony has decided that Tuzenbach has insulted him and has challenged him to a duel. Tuzenbach leaves to go to the duel without telling Irina where he is going; he asks her to order him a coffee. This is another minor, even trivial line, that carries much emotional weight. Then we hear the pistol shot and he has been killed. The soldiers leave. End of play.

Without any direct storytelling, in other words, many stories get told. If it weren’t for the title, we might not know which ones to follow. But it’s above all the story of all three sisters, the life chances of young women at that time and place, who are all still alive and together at the end. Irina has been saved from marrying a man she did not love, but only because he is dead; Masha has had the experience of great passion, but is now back with her husband, who accepts compassionately what has happened to her; Olga can be said to be materially better off, but her new job as headmistress is even more likely to be exhausting than her previous one as just a teacher. Natasha, of course, has gone from a shy village girl to the bossy, selfish mistress of a large house, although a house burdened by a mortgage. Perhaps what is most important about this play is the obvious fact that the main characters are women, and that it is about the life opportunities of women in  a society where property and violence belong to men.

bambooOne World Theatre doesn’t own a space at the present time; it finds and rents spaces for performances. Three Sisters is being done at the Kunja Theater, a black box 100-seat theater in what appears to be a bamboo-construction compound called Thapagaun, used for writers and artists workshops. The theater space and entrance are behind me; I am standing on a terrace above the rest of the compound. 

Three Sisters Thirty Seven Years Ago

When Deborah told me that she would be going back to Nepal in March and that her theater would be producing Three Sisters, I remembered the production I saw in 1980 at American Conservatory Theater (ACT) thirty seven years ago, with Elizabeth Huddle playing Olga. The play as I saw it then seemed to be about women trying to find meaning in their lives through work, not love. I had also just begun to be personally shaken by the tremors of the women’s movement. To me too, work was the way out of a trap.  In the first act, Irina, the 20-year old, says:

Work is the meaning of life — it’s goal, happiness, and joy. The worker getting up at dawn to break stones on the road is happy. So is the shepherd and the teacher of little children, and the engineer in the railway…God, it’s easier for a man. Better to be an ox, a horse, anything than a young woman who wakes up at noon, has coffee in bed and spends two hours dressing. That’s dreadful. I need to work, just as I need to drink water on a hot day.

Although I had already had many jobs, I was just discovering “my work” at that time, and Irina’s words hit home.  But Irina is talking about herself individually; when she talks about work, she is really talking about getting a job. Tuzenbach, the soldier of the regiment who is himself a Baron, grew up with a servant who would pull off his boots when he came home from a day at school. Tuzenbach responds to Irina’s mention of work by talking about the stark inequalities of the society in which they all live.

 A powerful storm is brewing — a good one. ..Our whole morbid, boring society will be swept away. I’ll work, and in twenty five or thirty years, everyone will work.

For her, work is individual liberation; for Tuzenbach, it’s revolution. The two themes fused for me into vision of what my own work could be.

The powerful storm that Tuzenbach foresaw actually did happen, of course. Chekhov, who lived from 1860 to 1904, wrote Three Sisters in 1900 for the Moscow Art Theater. The  first Russian Revolution began a mere five years later, involved worker strikes and peasant uprisings, won a constitution but did not get rid of the Tsar. The second Revolution started in 1917 and established the Soviet Union, a communist country in which one way or another, everyone really did work.

Mt work at that time was not only teaching but producing theater. I had produced a series of cabaret evenings at Rosenthal’s Deli in Berkeley, drawing on the culture of Yiddish theater, Second Avenue in the early 1900s, and the many talented Jewish performers, storytellers and singers around Berkeley. This led to an invitation to produce the first season of the Berkeley Jewish Theater, where we did five short comic one-acts from the Second Avenue repertoire. These sold out, especially to  groups from old-age Jewish residential facilities, but also got myself and my co-producer, Harriet Herman, accused of blasphemy. I learned something about the difference between what was funny before the Holocaust and what was not funny afterwards. The problematic play was The God of the Wealthy Wool Merchant.

During this time Three Sisters was being produced at ACT and I went twice, maybe three times, once even walking out of a class taught by Jim MacKenzie (a class for aspiring producers,  which I was taking with Christine Taylor). He was the ACT Executive Producer, much loved. He said, as I got up to leave, “You need this class,” and I remember saying, “I need to see Three Sisters more.”

I remember that production as very period, lots of red and gold, not so much Russian as high-middle-class British. Eliabeth Huddle played Olga, the sister with the headaches who becomes a headmistress as the acts go by. I could feel in my own bones the sense of frustration and constraint that the sisters suffer from, and I could understand how Masha, who is married, might fall in love with Vershinin, the commander of an artillery battery that has been temporarily assigned to the small town where they live. But I did not harbor the illusion that my escape to Moscow would come as a result of falling in love with someone. For me, it the combination of finding work, work in something that would contribute in some way to the storm. At first, it was theater; then teaching, and soon, teaching and activism in the labor movement.

Chekhov is Hard to Do Right

Chekhov’s plays are not single-actor star vehicles with only one, or even one main story. Going back to the exercise with which Rose started the warm-up: they require an ensemble, which is why the warmup exercises that the company was doing are so important. The multiple stories in a Chekhov play are sketched in, one hint at a time, as characters talk to each other or speak their inner thoughts in a way that feels more real than real life. This means that everyone on stage is important all the time. Even if a character is silent or has very few lines, the way that character listens to what others are saying, or responds physically to what is going on, carries the story forward. When there are many characters on stage at once, each one has to be responding to and propelling forward the emotional content of the moment. Sometimes that content comes in the lines of dialog and sometimes it comes in other ways.

This is so hard to do right; it was amazing to see this close, small group of actors fulfilling the demands of this kind of ensemble work.

Chekhov was hard even for the Moscow Art Theater. I found this in the Introduction to Sharon Marie Carnicke’s translation of Three Sisters (Hackett, 2014):

When Nemisovich-Danchenko insisted that Stanislavsky co-direct Chekhov’s The Seagull, Stanislavsky admitted that the work initially presented him with “a difficult task, becuase, to my shame, I did not understand the play…According to Olga Knipper the entire Moscow Art Theater company reacted “unenthusiastically” an with “confusion” when they first read Three Sisters. Another actor recalled, “We didn’t know how to play our roles!”

Olga Knipper became Chekhov’s wife and played Masha in Three Sisters.

When Rose Schwietz first read the play, she says (in the program notes): “I hated it. I found it boring, impossible to follow, and full of whining and complaining.”

Chekhov tells the story through the reactions of the characters to each other — or through their failure to react. For example: late in the play, Kulygin stands up in front of everyone and exclaims about how happy and satisfied he is (“I am a happy, happy man!”) and the other characters look at him and say nothing. If the director was relying on the dialog to tell the story, here, how would they know what to do? Instead, the story gets carried by the very blank looks on the other characters faces, and their silence as they acquiesce in Kulygin’s denial.

Another example: in the first act, Masha, the middle sister who is married to the High School Principal and who has been lying on the sofa the whole time so far, reading a book and hardly paying attention, gets up when Vershinin, the commander of the regiment comes to pay a visit and introduce himself (actually, herself in this production). There are now seven people on stage: Olga, Masha and Irina, the three sisters; Tuzenbach and Solyony, both soldiers; and Chebutykin, the old doctor. Vershinin knew the girls in Moscow because he knew their father. At first they don’t remember him; then they begin to. They called him “the lovesick Major.”  Suddenly Masha remembers: “How you’ve aged!” she says. “How you’ve aged!” she repeats, but now she’s crying. Something has happened to her between the first time she says that line and the second.  It’s Irina who notices, a few lines later, and asks her, “Why are you crying?” If Irina didn’t ask that question, we might not notice that Masha has just realized how old she too has become, and how desperate she is for something new and wonderful in her life.

Girls in Russia, Girls in Nepal and “Global People” 

This is a play about three girls — they are all over 20, but they are girls in the sense of young women who have their lives ahead of them, and their dreams of future happiness. It is being performed in a Nepal, a country where violence against women, especially against girls, is a recognized major problem. Do Nepali girls, for example girls in small cities or mountain villages,  have dreams of going to a cultural center somewhere far away and leading an exciting life? That would be an ambition of so many of our students in Viet Nam, who may be the children of farmers and come from villages, but dream of being “global people.” So this play about the destiny of young women is being performed in a milieu where the consciousness of the challenges facing women is very high.

Hemanta Chalise, who plays Kulygin in Three Sisters told me that in fact, Nepali girls do dream of being “global people,” but to them this means often means going to Australia or the US and studying. Australia is the Moscow for Nepali youth. Being “global” is valued by parents: Hemanta said that if a father is looking for a husband for his daughter, he will prefer a young man who has been to Australia or the US worked, to a young man with a college degree who has never been away from Nepal. However, this is a male actor talking about husbands and fathers, not daughters and girls. Just looking at the women in the theater troupe, we can see that they are making a step toward being “global people,” working in English, performing, forming collectives and producing magazines and films, often against the wishes of their families.

The other side of the story, Nepali girls, especially from impoverished villages in the western mountains, get sex-trafficked all over Asia, especially into India. Even in the cities, girls are likely to be violently abused in their families.  During the short time we are here I’ve seen newspaper articles about the murder of girls by their husbands, fathers and brothers.  One article was about a girl who was refusing to marry the man her father wanted her to. So she was stabbed 17 times, then her body was taken to be burned (ghats line the river through the city) to destroy the evidence, but the men were arrested before the could complete the cremation.

Bev Hoffman, the husband of Deborah Merola, is currently organizing and participating in the creation of an 80-foot mural, “The Wall of Hope,” along the retaining wall that faces the street below the Himalayan Hotel, one of the fanciest hotels in Kathmandu (I saw UN and USAID cars parked in their lot). The mural depicts the recovery of a woman from abuse, presumably trafficking or violence of some sort. As we walked along the wall while it was being painted, we saw young Nepali student-age men and women stop to be photographed beside the images on that wall, as if it was likely to become a famous landmark – a photo-op site for upcoming “global people.”


One small part of the 80-foot long Wall of Hope, in front of the Himalayan Hotel. 

On to the next

Even while Three Sisters was running, some of the actors were in rehearsal with Deborah for the reprise of The Diary of Anne Frank, which is to be presented next week at two sites in India under the auspices of the Eighth International Theatre Olympics. Rose Schwietz will play Mrs Frank, Rajkumar Pudansaini will play Otto Frank, and Pooja Lama will play Miep.  Hemanta Chalise, who played Kulygin, will be the stage manager. Rehearsing one play while performing in another created difficulties for concentration, to say nothing of making a schedule for rehearsals and getting people into the same room together. In addition, the young woman who would play Anne Frank, Rojita Buddhacharya, was scheduled to join a team to summit Everest immediately after the final performance. She was in intense physical training and could only get away to rehearse for two hours a day. On top of that, Rose got seriously sick, possibly from exhaustion both directing and performing in Three Sisters.

This double-schedule is all happening in an economy and society that does not provide the kinds of cushion and back-up that even people who live as precariously as actors do in the US are used to. One World Theatre pays actors $300 dollars for two months of work; the director and artistic director gets the same as the actors. The budget for the whole production is likely to be $7,000. They only make $1500 in admissions, keeping ticket prices low enough so that students and ordinary people can come (500 rupees or less). Actors have to work at more than one theater or take film work in order to live. Then there are the health problems that come from living in a place where you can’t drink the water; troupe members go to the hospital frequently with infections or other problems. At least the tremendous problem of daily electricity load-shedding has been improved. Up until one or two years ago, there would be a period of time every day when there was no electricity. This might happen in the middle of a production. When the electricity went off, the house would go dark, someone would say “We are pausing for technical difficulties,” and you would hear steps in the dark while someone went to turn on the generator. Then, after the generator got going, the lights would come back on and the actors would start up again. During rehearsals, everyone would bring in their cell phones and plug them in to charge them on the theater’s electrical system.

Of course there are also the normal personal crises.  Just before Three Sisters opened, one actor had a death in the family and had to miss rehearsals while participating in three days of funeral rituals. Another troupe member, the stage manager for The Diary of Anne Frank, got mugged and had some ribs broken. In addition, three of the potential locations for Three Sisters fell through before the Kunja Theater site came through. Rose Schwietz made the decision to play Vershinin as a woman, herself, only after four men who had been selected for the role dropped out.

Nonetheless, the preparations went forward to take The Diary of Anne Frank to India. What could possibly go wrong?










What’s going on in Nepal? — March 18, 2018

What’s going on in Nepal?

night market

Things shut down early in Kathmandu; this was a lone shop open at about 8 pm on Friday night. You can’t expect to go out and get dinner after a show. But you can buy newspapers at news-stands, some in English and some critical of the government. Nepal has a parliamentary system led by the CPN-UM (Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist) with the Maoist Centre coming in second and the Nepali Congress Party coming in third. It was a monarchy until April 2008, when the monarchy was abolished and King Gyanendra was “demitted” following a surprise electoral victory by the Maoists.  This was following about 15 years of internal conflict, the last ten years of it quite violent. The country was said to “be at war with itself.”

Padan gate

The Patan Dhoka Gate

On Saturday people do not work. We walked around Patan Dhoka and saw families in festive clothes out for a stroll. Here is a young couple in a tea house with their baby daughter. The four men in the rear are going over copies of some kind of document together. On a different street we walked past a tiny tea house where five middle-aged women were sitting around a table in deep discussion. It was striking that they were not multi-generational and family; it was women age 30-40, having a meeting of some sort.


There is at least one good bookstore, near the Patan Dhoka gate, called the Patan Book Shop. And there are the remains of posters on the walls that appear to be warning people against interfering with elections, or at least with the practice of freely voting. The words “Election Committee” were in English up at the top of this poster.


Taxis and Tickets

We have had a great time getting tickets from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Monday, where we will go tomorrow just for the fun of it and to be in a different place. Getting visas to enter India on Friday was a separate project that involved going to an expediter near the Indian embassy and paying $75 each. It has also been a challenge to get tickets to Delhi and then from Delhi to Jammu in Kashmir. The Safeway travel agency down near the airport does  not take credit cards, but this is the agency that is booking the tickets for the theater troupe.  The Eva travel agency fairly near our guesthouse (I found it just when wandering around) does take cards, but had only one swipe machine shared among its several offices, and I had to go on a motorbike with the travel agent to pay for the tickets. But here is a picture of the assistant to the travel agent.


His name is Sudeep Lama. He will be 21 in a few days. He did not do well on his IELS (international educational level test of English, Math, etc); he got a 400 out of 1,000. Therefore he decided that he should apply to be a Gurkha. He says the British accept 300 young Nepali men every year to become Gurkhas, part of the British army. (In Prashant Jia’s book — see below – she says that many Nepalis serve in Gurkha regiments in the Indian Army.) But there is a test for that too, including a physical test in which you have to do sit ups, weight lifts, and running. It was a hot day when the test was given and therefore many Nepali boys did not do well on the running. In the meantime, he had spent all his energy preparing for the Gurkha test and not on the IELS and did not do well that time either. You are allowed to try three times, between the ages of 17 and 21, to become a Gurkha, and he will soon be too old. So he lives with his parents and they give him some money. He earns $45 per month as an assistant at the travel agency. He says “It is my destiny.” He also works as a coach for an athletic society in return for which he is allowed to use the gym.

Selling land to get a car

The complexity of scheduling and paying for tickets and visas put us into taxis quite a lot. One driver talked to us while we went out to the Safeway agency near the airport which had done our Delhi-Jammu tickets. He paid $20,000 for his car, which is what a car that costs $4,000 in India costs when it gets to Nepal, because of taxes, if you are going to use it for commercial purposes. If it is only for personal purposes, the cost is $16,000. The medallion that lets him use it as a taxi costs 500 R but he says you have to pay 1,000 to get one. To pay for his car, he sold some land that his family owned in their village: land for a car.  “My father is very disappointed in me,” he said, several times. His father and mother were left with just a little bit of land for a garden. The driver got $6,000 for the land.

He then took out a bank loan, a seven year loan. He has now paid two years on the loan. “In five years this car will be mine,” he said. The government confiscates vehicles over 20 years old; in the newspaper today, it told about confiscations of old cars in other cities, and old school buses. They are sold for scrap. So with a car life expectancy of 20 years, he may drive it free for 13 years. His brother also drives it. The roads are mostly terrible so how a car can survive 20 years is beyond me. However, he drove us along one windy road through the city that he said had been paved only the day before, and it was beautifully smooth.

This driver, whose name was Kumar, was willing to talk with us about the government. So far everyone we have talked with says “corruption” immediately and then laughs or says they don’t pay attention to politics. But we were able to get a bit further with him. As we drove, of course, he pointed out places where the road was dug up, piles of bricks and pipe were lying around, and yellow tape ran from one barrier to another to keep cars from falling into holes. This project was started two years ago and just stopped, the money’s all gone! But also: there is now electricity, and two years ago there was not electricity in the middle of the night. And water is coming — there will be pipes coming down from the mountains bringing water that you can drink. That’s what many of these big pipes are for, that you see lying along the road, along the fresh ditches. He points out the road we are on, with its fresh asphalt. Schools? The schools are terrible. There are not enough good teachers. Whenever they can, people send their children to private schools but they are very expensive.

Labor unions? He said that there are many unions but they belong to parties, and there are twelve active political parties right now. For example, there are taxi drivers unions. They do not talk to each other.  (There is a General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, https://www.gefont.org/  associated with the CPN-UML.) Taxis are supposed to — according to the government — use their meters, but the price on the meter has not changed in seven years and it is too little, impossible to live on what you make on the meter. So they go to the government and ask the government to raise the price on the meter, and the government says “Yes, we’ll think about it,” and then nothing. So he is not active in the taxi drivers union.

The government is pretty good right now, he says. Fifteen years ago it was terrible. This was when the war was going on and the Nepalese army was killing people and the Maoists were killing people.  Now the Maoists are the second most powerful party in government. But the government is unstable. So they can’t get anything done. But it’s pretty good. When he votes, he says, he votes for the king.

We are reading a book we bought at Dixit Bookstore near Padan Dacca: Battles of the New Republic: A contemporary history of Nepal, by Parashant Jha. Although it was published in 2014 I am counting on it to bring me up to date as much as possible.

Corruption: an example, with punishment?

In the March 1 Kathmandu Post there was an article on page 2 about “activists” of the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal. These two activists – men — stopped their motorbike in an intersection (a “chowk”) and intercepted Gokarna Sapkota, the legal officer at the nearby cancer hospital, as he was returning from a hairdressing salon. They poured diesel on him. He was able to escape by running. The assailants also got away. They are being tracked. An investigation is under way to determine whether or not the assailants lit a match or made any other attempt to kindle a fire. If they only dumped diesel, but did not light it, perhaps the event should be considered a threat. Pamphlets with the name of CPN Chitwan were recovered from the incident, explaining why Sapkota should be punished. Evidently he was unfairly promoted to a post at the hospital and used a vacancy to hire some people in an irregular manner. This party is a 2014 split from another Maoist party. It is registered but has no representation in parliament. Its base is in the far west of Nepal in an area often cut off from the rest by monsoon and snow. It achieves its goals though direct action and banda (strikes).

I include this story because it struck me as such an extreme and desperate response to what looks to me like petty corruption. In my world,  irregularities in promotion and hiring happen all the time; if they attract attention the person may get fired or shelved off into a position where they have no power any more. But there is a process that can grind along slowly and take care of things, as long as there is someone to set it in motion (and complain or file a grievance or write a #meToo message). The culprit typically does not have to fear having diesel fuel thrown on him while crossing the street. However, if there are no alternatives that can be trusted — well, I can understand why something more direct might be necessary. But there must have been a discussion in the planning stages about whether or not to light a match.