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Stateside With Rosalea: The Last Weekend Of Winter

It's St Paddy's Day today but they had the 149th SPD parade in San Francisco last week, so instead I had a Polish sausage at Ghirardelli Square, where an Irish street fair was promised but didn't seem to have yet eventuated. No doubt with the street closed off till 1am, things will be lively enough tonight. If eating a Polish hotdog at an Italian chocolate factory sounds un-Irish, well hey, just a tinge of yellow on one of the stripes and the Italian flag could well be the Irish one. Seeing a sports car full of young people in green t-shirts going past St. Pat's cathedral, which had a message posted on the door about the harp of Erin, was as Irish - and as Californian - as the day got. Damn, this weather's good!

It has to be, to make up for the gloomy, gloomy week on the stock market. My first inkling of what the week's major news story would be came last Sunday on the plane back from Nevada, when the person in the seat next to me inquired politely about the health of the NZ dollar when I told him where I was from. His friends in the City follow the stock markets closely, he said, and Japan was in deep trouble, which must surely be affecting Australia and New Zealand.

The stock market is intensely interesting to Americans because they've got all their savings tied up in it. Banks offer only 1 percent interest on savings accounts, so most people save for their retirement and their kids' education by having stock portfolios. The journalistic adage "If it bleeds it leads" applies to haemorrhaging stock values as much as it does to anything. However, the local journalists seem also to be aware that they actually add to the blood flow by reporting too negatively. All the same, one morning news anchor, coming off a traffic report showing the cavernous SF financial district, quipped: "Don't worry. None of the windows open."

There are lots of vox pox featuring down-to-earth investors saying: "Don't panic. The market was overheated and now it's settling to its true level." Which they've said ten times over in the past year. "People who need the money in the short term shouldn't have it in the stock market," they opine unhelpfully to those who've been caught out with not enough cash and a contracting net worth. By the end of the week the Dow was at its lowest point since 1989, and experts in international economics were pointing to the massive job layoffs in countries like Malaysia - much of the stock on American store shelves comes from Asia - as indicators that things are not going to turn around in a hurry.

If that wasn't bad enough, the year "1929" kept creeping into news bulletins - albeit for a completely different reason. "Hoof and mouth", as the disease is called here, was last reported in the US in that year and authorities are determined it shouldn't reappear. There's a scramble on to get enough officials at airports to decontaminate anyone coming into the country from Britain or Europe. Luggage is opened so that shoes can be checked and scrubbed if need be, and people have to step in a pan of disinfectant as they go through the obligatory metal detectors that are at every US airport.

And it's not hard to see why - those terrible images coming out of Britain. For some reason the shots of huge bonfires in the distance remind me of WW2 movies about the bombing of Dresden. In a rare moment of visibility for the Windsors here in America, it was reported that Prince Charles was donating three-quarters of a million to help farmers keep their heads above water. Which only added to the war motif for me, reminiscent as it was of the way the royal family pitched in during the bombing of London.

War had been on my mind since Nevada. At the cowboy poetry show, the Bar J Wranglers acknowledged the veterans in the audience and had them stand. Some were young women, veterans of the Gulf War. The next morning at breakfast two WW2 veterans were discussing the USS Greeneville incident and talking about their own service days. "Of course, December 7th was 1941", said one, reinforcing the impression you get that Americans have to own everything, even days of the month. "What about all the other December 7ths?", I wanted to say. Sometimes you come to the unflattering conclusion that the "American way" is that things only matter if they matter to Americans.

Which brings me to the terrible fate of Major McNutt - a story that briefly knocked the stock market off the top of the news bulletins. Even the local tv news station led with it, including a brief comment by Mark Burton filmed at Parliament, and pullquoted in the next day's SF Chronicle. Helen Clark was also shown in a later bulletin, and the impression given of New Zealand was of some no-nonsense people who expected to get to the bottom of this. The story certainly wasn't given the same tragic overtones as the sinking of the Japanese fishing industry training vessel near Hawaii by the USS Greeneville in February. But, after all, in Kuwait the dead and injured were all military people doing military things, and - tragic though the accident was - it was part of the risks military people take.

I have to admit that I most uncharitably thought that by the end of the week the Kuwait accident would somehow be New Zealand's fault - but that expectation was based on the unsympathetic way the Greeneville incident was handled. If the US Navy had renamed the sub the USS Melville and made it an honorary whale it wouldn't have been more heartless than the way it took so long to apologize to the survivors and family members of the dead from the Ehime Maru. Most Americans - God bless 'em - were incredibly embarrassed by that.

The luck o' the Irish to ye all!

Lea Barker
California
Saturday, 17 March 2001


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