Be careful what you ask for


“The Secret” is on everybody’s lips. Oprah, Ellen, Larry. Who am I, then, to say it’s drivel? *

So I put the Law of Attraction to a test. Actually, I did this unknowingly, years ago, well before The Secret was a ka-ching in Rhonda Byrne’s metaphysical cash register.

I volunteered for Big Sunday, an annual citywide day in May of community service, a chance to put tikkun olam into practice. Big Sunday makes you feel good, earns you a colorful T-shirt, and is an excellent way to meet men.

Sure, working at battered women’s shelters or knitting booties for preemies might sound appealing, but … well … as long as I was volunteering … why not do something more male-friendly?

My proclamation to the Universe: I will meet single, hetero men. I found a downright macho project, helping to clean a stretch of the L.A. River. Surely the universe was listening.

And the Law of Attraction worked! The Universe did provide. Men, that is. Dozens and dozens of men. Little men. Cub Scouts. Adorable, hard-working, young. Not one of these Cub Scouts (nor their very married troop-leader fathers, wedding rings glinting in the sun) was my beshert.

My Stated Desire was simply not specific enough. When you send a thought into the universe, be precise. I’d give the universe another chance.

“I will meet an age-appropriate single hetero man of wit and intelligence,” I declared.

And this year the universe provided! Rick appeared. Good looking. My age exactly. Lean, muscular, a terrific smile. Articulate. Definitely hetero. And covered with prison tattoos, homeless, a junkie on parole for murder.

Is “living by your wits” the same thing as “witty”?

My Big Sunday assignment: interview a homeless person and write a biography; what did I expect? Organizer Katherine Butts Warwick offered a chance to “put a human face on homelessness.” She told us that, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly one-third of homeless adults have served in the Armed Forces. On any given day, as many as 200,000 veterans (male and female) live on the streets or in shelters, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year. There are now more homeless Vietnam veterans than Vietnam dead. I was shocked.

Rick wasn’t a vet — in fact, though he had desperately wanted to serve in the Armed Forces, his record of violence, gangs and prison prevented him from ever being accepted as a soldier. Rick spent 19 of his 50 years in prison. He now dreams of getting his GED, entering detox, having a permanent roof over his head and landing an office job (he learned to type in prison).

But Rick is upset at the lack of support he’s gotten after so many years behind bars.

“When you get out on parole, they don’t help you at all. They throw you out on Skid Row. What society fails to understand,” he says, “is that the system gives us a two- or three-year sentence, maybe 10, but, sooner or later, we’re going to come back. They think, OK, he’s put away, we’re safe,’ but they’re forgetting that the same person is going to come out again — without receiving any kind of social help, any kind of psychiatric help. It’s dangerous.”

Dangerous for Rick. Dangerous for society. Eye-opening for me.

I was looking for a date, a relationship. Instead, Rick made me grateful for the roof over my head and the support system of friends and family that I have in my life. Next year, I’ll be more specific still with the universe. In the meantime, I’ve learned that spending time volunteering fills up a spare evening and makes me feel better about myself than playing the dating game, L.A.-style. And tikkun olam trumps “The Secret” any day of the week.


Diane Saltzberg lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at dlsaltzberg@gmail.com


* Editor's note: If "The Secret" isn't drivel, we sure got it wrong in this cover story by Amy Klein!

Vietnamese Israeli family takes a long trip ‘home’


In 1977, an Israeli cargo ship nearing Japan spotted a leaking boat crammed with 66 Vietnamese men, women and children out of food and water.
 
They were among the hundreds of thousands of “boat people,” fleeing their war-ravaged country following the end of the Vietnam War. Despite desperate SOS signals, the refugees’ distress had been ignored by passing ships from East Germany, Norway, Japan and Panama.
 
The Israeli ship picked up the weakened passengers and took them back to Israel. There, Prime Minister Menachem Begin authorized their permanent admission to Israel, comparing their plight to that of Europe’s Jewish refugees seeking a haven in the 1930s.
 
What happened to the Vietnamese refugees, and the hundreds that followed them, in “the land of the Jews”?
 
In one of the opening scenes of the Israeli film “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen” (screening locally on Sept. 30), Hanmoi Nguyen, one of the original refugees, has been in Israel for 25 years. He works hard in a Tel Aviv restaurant, lives modestly, and with his wife is raising five Israel-born, Hebrew-speaking daughters.
 
The oldest girl, Vaan, is a writer, has served in the army and feels Israeli — except for her looks. In their classic up-front style, her fellow sabras keep asking her whether her eyes are slanted because she eats so much rice and if she is related to this or that Chinese martial arts star.

In the evenings, the father writes Vietnamese poetry and joins his friends in nostalgic songs about the beautiful land they left behind.
 
In Vietnam, Hanmoi Nguyen was the son of a wealthy landowner, and he dreams of returning to his village to reclaim the property and settle scores with the communist functionary who kicked him out at gunpoint.
 
He scrapes together enough money for the trip and returns to a land and a people he hardly recognizes. In a curious parallel to the Holocaust survivors who returned to their homelands to reclaim their old homes, he is met with suspicion and hostility by the new inhabitants and red tape by officials.
 
Even the hated communist functionary, like the Nazi bully in Germany, is now a nice old man who urges that bygones be bygones.
 
After a few months, daughter Vaan joins her father to dig for her own roots. She is happy that people on the street look like her, but has trouble negotiating the language and has no patience with the elaborate circumlocutions of social intercourse.
 
To the natives, Vaan herself has become a foreigner, and she laments, “I am a tourist, I am an Israeli.”
 
The agony of being suspended between two civilizations, without being fully at home in either one, is sensitively, at times heartbreakingly, portrayed, but the film by Israel’s Duki Dror (a UCLA alumnus) is not without humor.
 
One hilarious scene shows the newly arrived boat people being welcomed by an effusive Jewish Agency representative in Hebrew, of which the polite audience doesn’t understand a word.
 
Shortly afterward, an equally enthusiastic integration official tries to teach the refugees a lively Chanukah song.
 
On the reverse side, the returned father tries to explain Israel to puzzled Vietnamese villagers. He finally comes up with, “They have one lake and eat strange foods.”
 
The film, in Hebrew and Vietnamese with English subtitles, is presented as part of the National Geographic All Roads Film Festival, which will showcase various global cultures through films, photographs and music Sept. 28- Oct. 1 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
 
Two other films, looking at Israeli society from different, and critical, perspectives, are on the program.
 
“Zero Degrees of Separation” by Elle Flanders, focuses on an Israeli-Palestinian gay couple, and a similar lesbian couple. Apparently everyone is bitterly opposed to Israeli government policy, or, as the synopsis has it, “The stories contrast the ideals at the birth of the ‘holy land’ with the reality of the country today — an Israel mired in the rubble of occupation.”
 
“The Last Supper — Abu Dis,” a short film by Palestinian director Issa Frej, seems equally disenchanted with present-day Israel. As seen through the eyes of a young Arab woman, the people of an Arab village overlooking Jerusalem anticipate the consequences of the approaching Israeli security fence, which, they claim, will cut the village in half.
 
All three films will screen on Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd. “Journey” will start at 5 p.m. The 26-minute long “Last Supper” screens at 8 p.m., followed immediately by “Zero Degrees.”
 
For additional information about the films and other festival events, call (323) 466-3456) or visit www.nationalgeographic.com/allroads.
 

Iraq Situation: It’s Vietnam Deja Vu


Determination is a virtue. Remember how determined we were in Vietnam?

No bunch of barefoot peasants was going to force the United States of America to cut and run. No sir. Through eight long years and 58,000 dead soldiers we demonstrated our refusal to be cowed.

We were in Vietnam to protect the freedom of the South Vietnamese people against the godless communists who were out to enslave them. Unfortunately, the fact that the enemy was ethnically identical to the citizens we were protecting made it a little hard at times to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.

Some of the troops got so fed up with the effort that they stopped trying to tell them apart. On their helmets they had a catchy solution: "Kill ’em all. Let God sort ’em out."

Then, as now, we had persuasive reasons for persisting, even after it became apparent that we couldn’t win. There was the infamous "domino effect" of collapsing Asian countries if we left. And of course, the ever-popular "bloodbath" that would follow if the communists took over the South. Naturally, we had to keep fighting so as not to abandon our POW’s, who, it turned out, were repatriated immediately after we left.

Then there was the knotty problem of how to leave. We needed to "save face," to ensure our continued credibility among the nations of the world (most of whom thought we were crazy to be there). We finally left the way we came — on boats and planes.

During our prolonged adventure in Southeast Asia, we heard constantly that we were engaged in a struggle for the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. Sound familiar?

We tried to win them over with crop assistance and relocation to "strategic hamlets." We built schools and clinics. When that didn’t work, we established "free-fire zones," where we shot anything that moved, including water buffalo.

And we were always making progress. Maps showing steady increases in territory "pacified" were popular backdrops for briefing senior administration officials when they visited. But the people doing the killing and dying had a slightly more cynical view. On a restroom wall in Long Binh I read, "Would the last person out of the tunnel please turn out the light."

In the end, we lost because we didn’t belong. We were foreigners pursuing what we considered our own self-interest at the expense of a people we saw as "underdeveloped."

They sent us packing, because, in the end, they were more willing to die than we were to kill them. It was, after all, their country. Vietnam should have taught us this: Determination in the pursuit of folly is the indulgence of fools.

Now we seek to disengage from Iraq, that ungrateful tar baby of a country, wondering all the while at the absence of the flower petals with which the inhabitants were supposed to greet us, their liberators. Instead it appears that many of them hate us so much that it is not enough to kill us. They want to dismember our burned bodies and hang us from the nearest bridge.

Can’t they see that we only want for them the freedom and democracy that is the natural condition for all people?

All right, we tell ourselves, the resistance to what is best for them is the work of a few "insurgents" or "Saddam loyalists" or "outside terrorists." Surely, most of the Iraqis like us and appreciate what we’re trying to do for them.

Meanwhile, in a related story, our own country is in the hands of the most arrogant, secretive, ill-informed administration in memory. These are people for whom the lesson of Vietnam was that we didn’t try hard enough, didn’t give the military free rein. Sure we dropped more bombs on the place than were used by all parties to World War II, but, by gosh, if Washington hadn’t micromanaged that war, if we had really taken the gloves off, we could have won.

As with Vietnam, we were wrong to go to Iraq, and we are wrong to stay. The action-oriented neoconservatives currently controlling our government are convinced that our proper place in the world is as an imperial power, disdaining the opinions of other nations, attacking preemptively whomever we feel threatened by. Do we imagine that the skewed intelligence and downright deceptions used to justify this war are irrelevant to its outcome?

And now, once again, standing on the ash heap of lies and miscalculations that have characterized this disastrous and unilateral aggression, the gang in charge looks at the rest of us smugly and speaks of a need to "stay the course" in an effort to sell this misbegotten invasion as an example of determined leadership in the war on terrorism.

If we are stupid enough to buy this approach for another four years, we deserve the whirlwind that awaits us.


Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. He became an antiwar activist, and is now a psychiatrist in Columbia, Md.

Visiting Vietnam


The 25th anniversary of Saigon’s fall has unleashed a flood of existential questions for Vietnamese and Americans. The roads taken, alternatives ignored and current choices compete for attention.Surprises and paradoxes littered the cityscapes of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi during my two-week April trip to Vietnam. First, Vietnam has become a safe, cheap and fascinating travel destination for American tourists. Schoolchildren, for instance, walk out of their way to greet you with a “hello” at museums and in parks. I’m sure a certain and unavoidable amount of anti-U.S military sentiment exists, yet almost everyone I met seemed very friendly, eager to talk and curious about the United States.

It’s impossible, even for people who have suffered in Bangkok’s traffic jams, to imagine the chaos on Saigon’s streets. Visualize the worst traffic jam you ever sat through on the 405. Now replace each car with five motorcycles, three overloaded bicycles, and a cyclo. Shrink the freeway by two thirds. Add humidity. Subtract traffic rules like lanes, direction and seat belts. That’s traffic in the new Vietnam.

The English language has also made an impressive comeback on the streets. A huge banner, for example, hanging on the recently completed Hanoi Towers proclaims in English: “Office Space Available for Lease.” Of course, Hanoi’s largest banner wraps around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. It measures at least 20 feet high and 100 yards long and proclaims in Vietnamese, “Vietnam belongs to the people of Vietnam.”These contradicting banners lead to another perception. Traditional communist symbols currently co-exist in an odd symmetry with new corporate logos. The unofficial motto, acceptable to both older communists and younger capitalists, seems to be “money makes the world go ’round.” The attitude, at least in Saigon’s crowded markets and narrow street stalls, feels like “We won the war, you lost. Now won’t you please buy something?”

The intense energy, chaotic streets and constant bargaining for consumer goods in Saigon and Hanoi highlight the government’s dilemma. The country remains extremely poor by almost all standards, including the average number of calories consumed daily. Countryside residents average just over $150 per year, Hanoi residents top $300 per year, and Saigon residents live it up on $600 per year. Women merchants still carry produce using don garh, the two baskets suspended from either end of a pole and carried on their shoulders.

The continual presence of young children peddling postcards, especially in Saigon’s District One and central Hanoi, where tourists visit and shop, can be disconcerting, even overwhelming. I became essentially a walking ATM, purchasing numerous postcard collections, Xeroxed copies of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” “The Sorrow Of War” by Bao Ninh and “Lonely Planet’s Vietnamese Phrasebook.” Visitors might want to have a “giving” philosophy worked out in advance. After a few days, I was giving away the duplicate postcard collections to other aggressive postcard vendors. (I still brought back over 200 postcards!)

My most memorable mornings involved hiring a cyclo driver, riding around wide boulevards, and taking pictures of Saigon coming to life from 5 to 7 a.m. You can watch hundreds of Vietnamese residents exercise in the streets and parks starting at 5 a.m. Senior citizens stretch their bodies; children play soccer in the streets; a few women begin to set up on the sidewalks to sell vegetables, bread and fish. I also enjoyed very early walks along Hanoi’s beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake as hundreds of people exercised. Vietnam’s two state television channels have also created a distinct electronic culture. The channels often show close up images of butterflies, rice fields, and the day’s newspaper – with little or no camera movement. An off-screen narrator presumably provides commentary. Vietnamese television seems the total visual antithesis of MTV’s fast edits, music and seductive commercials.

Another indigenous form of Vietnamese entertainment, water puppet theater, provides an intriguing glimpse into peasant culture. Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theater, a popular attraction, depicts Vietnamese folktales in short symbolic vignettes as four musicians perform a 45-minute concert of traditional music. This peculiar evening of pre-electronic entertainment, celebrating the lives of rice farmers and national mythology, features colorful puppets moving in a languid pool. Designed for 11th century peasants and marketed to 21st century tourists, the Hanoi Water Puppet theater costs less than $3 and includes a free audiocassette. A bargain or a bore.

A far safer bet for sophisticated visitors remains Ha Long Bay, with its spectacular island peaks. Ha Long Bay, selected as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994 and featured in the film “Indochine,” awes one with its natural beauty. Boat cruises are available taking visitors to hundreds of small, uninhabited, oddly shaped limestone islands for a few hours. It’s a stunning and magnificent place in the Gulf of Tonkin that gives the distinct impression of being unearthly. Tourists usually take a one- or two-day organized excursion trip from Hanoi. During the bus trip to Ha Long Bay, one can glimpse Vietnam’s endless rice fields, water buffaloes, and women in their non (conical hats) working in the fields.

Visiting Vietnam, like visiting Israel, means running into old ghosts from painful historical periods. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, American tourists can spend several full days just visiting museums and monuments about “the American War.” A strong nationalism and third-world revolutionary rhetoric continue to burn inside Vietnam’s museums, even while local merchants and their consumers dream of a first-world economy.

The national slogan, printed on all government forms, reads: Independence – Freedom – Happiness. Cynics and refugees joke that the dashes stand for minus signs. Ho Chi Minh’s multidecade crusade for national independence from the Japanese, French and Americans was successful. The Vietnamese paid a heavy price for victory and unifying their country – approximately 3 million people died in the war with the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies alone. Given Vietnam’s 20th-century wartime experiences with foreign powers, a certain level of classical nationalism and xenophobia seems understandable.

The War Remnants Museum, called the American War Crimes Museum until a few years ago, crams many disturbing pictures and articles documenting wartime atrocities. A surprisingly large percentage comes from Western media sources, including large color photographs of the My Lai massacre, prisoner executions, and physical torture. According to the guides, the War Remnants Museum is the most popular Saigon museum for Western tourists.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi remains the country’s central shrine for remembering that long 20th century civil war. Thousands of children, peasants, and tourists walk two by two past stone-faced soldiers. Visitors encounter the legendary state founder in somber silence as people view the well preserved corpse of Vietnam’s George Washington. I couldn’t help wonder how history would have been different if the American government had recognized Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence – which began by quoting our own Declaration of Independence – in 1946 instead of supporting France’s efforts to regain her former colonies.

Yet Ho Chi Minh’s formula for independence, freedom and happiness – built on the Soviet economic model, national pride, and decades of rebellion – has brought more poverty than prosperity. Reunification led to a forced exodus of at least a million ethnic Chinese, soon known as boat people, rather than some socialist promised land. New wars soon followed with Cambodia and China. I felt sad leaving Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The cult of Ho Chi Minh, for worse or better, continues.