18 March 2014

MY MOVE TO MISSISSIPPI - THE VIEW AFTER SIX MONTHS

Warning: This is long.
As you can see by the date of the previous post on this blog, I haven’t exactly been keeping up with it. Mostly, since moving to Mississippi I’ve been posting a lot of photos and the occasional bits and pieces of commentary on my Facebook page.

But about a month ago, Mississippi Legends magazine asked me if I’d write a follow up piece to my blog about why I moved to Mississippi. They had published a slightly reworked version of the blog that appeared here and it generated more letters and online comments than any other article they’ve ever published. Most of those letters and comments were very pleased that someone from the outside has overcome the stereotypes and prejudices that outsiders harbor about the state. Some of them were critical, saying that my blog was na├»ve with regard to the very real problems that still affect everyday life in Mississippi. Click here to see that article and the online comments.

So, I started to write a new article for Legends, an update to my previous one from the perspective of having been here six months and having got to know the state at least a little bit better than I did when I moved here.

I struggled with it. Legends is a magazine about the arts, culture, cuisine and history of Mississippi, it isn’t a forum for controversy or strong opinions. I emailed the editor to tell her that I wasn’t sure my update was the sort of thing they are looking for, that while I’m still very happy that I have moved here, and I am more than ever convinced that there are a great many truly wonderful things about this place, my honest opinion has come to be a great deal more mixed and nuanced than it was in my original blog. Any new article of mine was going to reflect the more complex picture I have developed, rather than the wide-eyed wonder of the first one.

She asked to see it anyhow, so that she could decide for herself. So I sent it to her. After several weeks I asked what was the status. She got back to me saying that she and other people associated with the magazine had been giving it a lot of thought. She had edited it so as to tone it down and had decided that if they were to publish it, it would only be in the online, rather than the print, version of the magazine.

I requested to see the edited version before they published it in any form. Having been an editor myself, I normally loathe and have generally refused requests like that from writers. But in this case the article is an opinion piece, rather than news or a feature story, and it is meant to express my opinion. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted it “toned down,” as I didn’t think it was all that outrageous an opinion to begin with.

The editor wrote me to say: “Maybe you should see the rest of Mississippi. A lot of what you said isn't true. It's a narrow perspective. Some of what you said is true. But only some. I have to be mindful of the entire state, not just your corner. It needs balance.”

She may have a point, at least part of one. Though I have made an effort to see a lot of the state, and have probably seen more of it than many people who have lived here their whole lives, I certainly haven’t seen it all. And I haven’t lived here all that long. And the corner of it in which I live – the Mississippi Delta – is almost certainly the most impoverished part of the state. But I have seen enough indications of the problems I wrote about in all the parts of the state I’ve visited, that I am of the opinion that there is, sadly, more truth in what I’ve written than she believes.

The upshot is that Legends is not going to publish the updated piece on My Move to Mississippi – the View After Six Months. I want to stress that I am not bothered by their decision. As I had originally thought, the magazine isn’t really the right place for what I’ve written.

But for my friends, fans, foes, family and anyone else who is interested, I’ve decided to publish it here. At the end I’ve added some further thoughts, some stronger opinions that will undoubtedly step on some toes and that I knew better than to include in what I’d originally written for Legends.

By way of further introduction, I do want to emphasize that I have absolutely no regrets about having moved here. It was the right move to the right place at the right time in my life. I love it here. I think Mississippi is a wonderful and terribly misunderstood place. It is also, however, a place with a lot of problems that are holding it back from being even better than it is. And those problems can’t even begin to be solved without some honest hard looks at what they are and where they spring from.

Here’s what I wrote for Legends:

First off, let me answer what seems to be the burning question on most Legends readers minds when they meet me or email me: yes, I have found tofu. Packaged but reasonably fresh tofu at the Kroger here in Clarksdale and the fresh stuff in Memphis. (I’ve also found mangosteen in Memphis – my favorite and very hard to find anywhere outside of southeast Asia, tropical fruit.)

I’ve had visitors from Los Angeles. The first were a lesbian couple who’d been afraid I’d have to protect them. It came as no surprise to me that I didn’t have to do anything of the sort. It came as a complete surprise to them that they had such a great, fun, comfortable time here that they are already planning a return visit. I think it was the dance floor at Po Monkey’s that sealed the deal.

So far I’ve hosted seven skeptical visitors from my old hometown. All of them went away talking about when they’d be back and understanding, at last, why I’ve moved here. In the course of their visits they’ve enjoyed the physical beauty of the state and met a fair share of world class intellectuals, artists, writers, musicians, just plain ordinary everyday good folk and a variety of interesting and amusing characters.

Mississippi does a very good job of speaking for itself if an outsider will dial down the loud voices that shout the stereotypes about the place and keep an open mind.

But those voices are loud for a reason. Six months in, getting to know the state better than I ever did as an occasional visitor, it is painfully evident that a lot of those stereotypes exist for good reason. (Please keep in mind that I am well aware of the fact that I am still a newcomer here, that I don’t know Mississippi nearly as well as people who have lived here their whole lives or spent a lot more time than I have. But these are my impressions so far.)

While the majority of people I’ve met here have not been uneducated or racist or misogynist or intolerant, I have met some who are. While you can meet people of that ilk anywhere, I’ve come across more here than in most other places. Too many Mississippians wear the state’s history as a millstone around their necks.

And that history has not served this place well. Too many romanticize a past that isn’t romantic, that is nothing to be proud of or to wish to return to. (Sorry, but I get a little sick to my stomach every time I see the Confederate battle flag on the current flag of my new home state.) And too many also cling to that past to foster and build on resentments as an excuse for a lack of cooperation and motivation that stands in the way of a better life for everyone, including themselves.

These two big things encroach on daily life here in a lot of unexpected ways.

Though I live in Clarksdale, a small city, and there’s no traffic, no long lines at stores and everything is relatively close together, it can take a lot longer than it should to do such simple things as make a purchase at a local shop. It’s a far more congenial experience than it is in Los Angeles. But it can require a lot of patience.

Too many clerks and patrons are regularly unable to process transactions in an efficient way, or to clearly communicate what they want or need. I’ve seen people struggle to write checks and to make change, to answer seemingly simple questions or deal with minor complications. There are people here, a lot more of them than there should be, who cannot do basic arithmetic or lack the vocabulary to make their needs known.

And the poor level of education leads to fewer jobs. Companies don’t want to locate here because they can’t find an adequately educated workforce. And fewer jobs leads to further poverty and desperation. And crime - Clarksdale has a high and growing crime rate - goes hand in hand with that. Too many people here lack education, lack opportunities, lack jobs and are afraid in their own homes. And all of that plays right into people’s bad expectations of and stereotyping and resentments of and anger at each other. And that affects everyone in the whole community.

I have spent a great deal of time in what is called the “third world” and Mississippi is as close to it as I have seen in America outside of some Native-American reservations.

That isn’t to say there aren’t opportunities and there isn’t hope. There is. Like any place that needs a lot of work and has a tremendous amount of potential, Mississippi is a land of great promise for those who are willing to come here and invest their time, effort, expertise, money and patience.

Clarksdale is improving in some ways. One Friday night in January during the Film Festival, four new businesses opened their doors in downtown Clarksdale. (One of them was my gallery – DogLeg.) But, sadly, what this community really needs isn’t another art gallery, or three new restaurants that most of the people who live here can’t afford. (Although it could definitely use some healthier inexpensive food choices.) It needs factories and large employers that can replace the thousands of old-style agricultural jobs that are gone and not coming back.

And it desperately needs better education to prepare people to take advantage of the new types of jobs in agriculture and other industries that are coming into being.

In spite of its beauty, its tremendous creative cultural heritage and community, in spite of its remarkably warm and friendly people, all the many things that make life here exciting and interesting and fulfilling, there is no denying that Mississippi is the poorest, worst educated state in the country. And that becomes increasingly impossible to ignore the longer I live here.

Am I glad I moved here? You bet I am. Do I still believe everything I wrote in my first article about moving to Mississippi? Yes, I do but with wider open eyes. This is a wonderful place with tremendous opportunity and potential. But it is still going to take an awful lot of hard, smart work to make it into the place it ought to be.


Addendum


It is common currency here that Mississippi, and for that matter the South in general, is “post-racial.” ‘That was then, this is now’ and ‘it’s only outsiders who are really concerned with that stuff anymore’ seem to be widely held beliefs.

And while that may be true for some people, the fact for most is that the South isn’t so much color-blind as it is blind to the issues.

An incident in February on the Oxford campus of Ole Miss, and even more significantly the reaction to it, is telling. Some cretinous students hung a noose around the neck and a Confederate flag around the shoulders of the statue of James Meredith on the campus. (Meredith was the student who first integrated the university, with National Guard protection amidst rioting, in 1962.)

The university administration reacted the way one would hope. They condemned the action and launched an investigation that found and punished the morons who had perpetrated the outrage. People throughout the state were horrified and also condemned the action.

But among many of the white commentators in the state, and a few black ones, too, the big ongoing outrage was targeted at the “national media” for its coverage of the incident. The attitude seems to be that ‘everybody’s picking on us for the way that things used to be.’ People here take umbrage to the media spotlight, pointing out that racist incidents are not exclusive to this part of the country.

And that is true. I certainly recall times when fuckwits engaged in racist acts in California as well. But the thing is, I can recall them because they were also reported in the media, and reported with great outrage. And the sad truth of the matter is that while these things do happen in many places, they happen more frequently in those states with the historical legacy of slavery and legislated racism and segregation than they do in other states.

As much as many people here would like to believe that the horrible side of the history of this place is dead and buried, history never dies. It can only be forgotten – something that puts us at risk of repeating it.

An article on February 26th in the National Review by Lee Habeeb http://www.nationalreview.com/article/372001/media-south-lee-habeeb?utm_source=disqus_dashboard (I’m not sure this link works unless you are registered on the website) titled, “The Media, the South - The view that most Americans have of the South is more stereotype than truth,” was widely linked and referred to here in Mississippi. The article condemns the New York Times, among others, for its stereotypical view of the South.

One of the comments on the National Review article, however, points out that in its article on the incident the New York Times wrote: "By many measures, the university, which hosted a presidential debate in 2008, is an entirely different place from the one Mr. Meredith entered, one that combines contemporary ambition with seductive charm. Nearly 41 percent of its undergraduates are from outside Mississippi, up from 33 percent a decade ago. Minorities make up nearly a quarter of the student body, and the university’s average ACT score is at its highest level ever."

However, the Times also goes on to point out that the university hasn't entirely given up its past: “'If you bill yourself as Ole Miss and you call yourself the Rebels and the first thing a visitor to the campus sees is a Confederate monument, whether intentionally or not, it conveys an image,' said Charles W. Eagles, a history professor. 'And that image is an image tied to the past, not a 21st-century image.'”

Click here for a link to the NYT story.

Last fall I went to an Ole Miss football game and to the famous “tailgating” in the Grove before the game. In spite of the university being nearly 20% black, and the football team being more than half black, out of the thousands of tailgaters in the Grove I saw no more than a dozen or so African-Americans. Could that have something to do with the abundance of Confederate battle flags on display?

A lot of white people here shrug off sensitivities to displays of the Confederate flag. They like to say it doesn’t mean anything in the modern world, it’s just their heritage, their history and they have a right to that. But history does mean something, it can still bite us from the past. I don’t know any of those same people who wouldn’t understand Jewish people being put off by the display of swastikas.

And it’s not just the black people here who are ill-served by history. White people, too, are the victims of historical resentments and grievances that simmer and fester and provide excuses for the ongoing economic, social and familial malaise from which the whole region suffers.

And the most important public university in the state should be setting the tone for the state in general. A place of learning is a place where history should matter intensely, where it should be discussed and confronted and where open, honest discourse – something that can’t happen so long as people pretend that the past is over and done with - can start a process of reconciliation. Forgetting just isn’t the same as reconciling.

The pretense that Mississippi, and the South, is “post-racial,” is one of the things that gets in the way of the progress that this part of the country sorely needs.

While there is no denying that there are terrible problems in places all over this country, there is also no denying that most of the poorest, worst-educated, least healthy states in the United States are the states of the old Confederacy. That is more than mere coincidence.

I love my adopted home. It is a wonderful, exciting, interesting and generally very welcoming place. (At least it has been welcoming. I’ll see what happens after this blog is read.) I am delighted that it rarely lives up to the stereotypes that people from outside the area harbor about it. And I revel in explaining and showing that to my friends who visit. I still say to those of you reading this from outside the area, come on down for a visit. You'll like it. But I also don’t want to close my eyes to the problems that really do still exist. Loving a place (or a person or anything else for that matter) does not require a person to blind themselves to its faults or to want to find ways to make it even better.

12 June 2013

MISSISSIPPI? YOU'RE MOVING TO MISSISSIPPI?

I’m moving to Clarksdale, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta about 1-1/2 hours drive south of Memphis. I have been asked with great frequency – mostly by people who haven’t been to Mississippi – “why the hell would you move to Mississippi?”

This is why:

The Mississippi Delta is one of several places in the world where for some reason deep in my gut, I feel like my blood pressure lowers, I can breathe deeper and I simply feel at home. Indonesia is another place like that, even Jakarta (go figure.)

I first went to Mississippi, of course, because of the blues. I’ve loved blues music ever since I started developing my own taste in music around the age of 12. And the Mississippi Delta is where the music I love first began to develop in America. (I also love the music of Mali in West Africa, which could well be called the ancestral home of blues.)

But once the blues got me there, I began to fall in love with almost everything else about the place. I find it to be extraordinarily beautiful. As a photographer, the light angling across the big river and onto the levees and all the inlets and lakes and swamps and smaller rivers and then across the deep rich black soil and the black and white of the cotton fields when the cotton is in bloom, and the eerie brown and orange of the sorghum fields and all the greenery mixing in and fall colors, too, is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere. The weather, with the big storms rolling in from across the Great Plains, adds another dimension to the landscape. Throw in the odd and old agricultural and industrial towns and the surprisingly wide variety of people I encounter in them – who are almost all friendly and welcoming – and the place is a visual and human feast for me. You can get a visual taste of what I love about the place here: http://ericstone888.smugmug.com/Travel/MississippiDelta

The Mississippi Delta is as rich in history, a very mixed bag of tragic and triumphant history, and culture – besides the music, the visual and literary arts thrive in the area – as anywhere I’ve ever been, more so than a lot of places.

Now that isn’t to say there aren’t problems. Coahoma County, where Clarksdale is, has been called the poorest county in the poorest state in the U.S. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it might be. But among other things that means there are opportunities for people who have skills, are willing to work hard, to invest some cash and are willing to learn from and become an active part of the community they are living in. Frankly, I can be of a lot more use to my community and to myself in a place like Clarksdale than I can be in Los Angeles.

I have ideas for several businesses that will, hopefully, provide needed services to Clarksdale, maybe some jobs, as well as bring some money and further investment into the area. I have some friends in the area who I can work with on some of those ideas. And, because the area is so economically underdeveloped, it is inexpensive enough that the small investments I can afford to make in it can potentially have a greater impact than they would in Los Angeles.

On a personal level, I can live as or even more comfortably, on a whole lot less money in Clarksdale than I’ve been able to do in Los Angeles. And I’ll have some money left over with which to travel. Not to mention that the Memphis airport is a lot nicer to deal with than LAX. (And about as far away in travel time as LAX currently is for me during rush hour, or even some other times of day.)

But when talking with my friends and acquaintances who haven’t spent much, or any, time in the South, there is always an elephant in the room – the region’s legacy of bigotry and racism. Mississippi is one of the last places that fought to preserve slavery, and battled hard to maintain Jim Crow laws and segregation. Much of the horror of that is still within living memory. And of course there still are bigots and racists there. Why, my friends wonder, would I want to move to a place like that?

According to a lot of surveys there are more bigots and racists and hate groups in the South than in other parts of the U.S. But they are hardly alone. There are plenty here, in Los Angeles, too, and in New York and Boston. The South doesn’t have a monopoly on morons and miscreants, not by a longshot.

And, just like in most places, most of the people I meet in the Mississippi Delta aren’t strongly political in their daily interactions. They react to people individually, regardless of their race, background, religion (or lack thereof in my case) or sexuality and treat the people they meet with the same respect, or lack of it, that they get in return.

As for the legacy of segregation, the Mississippi Delta is far less racially segregated than Los Angeles or most other big northern and western cities. All of my white friends in Clarksdale have a lot more African-American friends than anyone I know in Los Angeles does, including myself. They live in neighborhoods that are far more integrated. If you want to have more than just a couple of friends or take your pick from a variety of neighborhoods, it’s pretty tough to be a racist in Clarksdale. In one of the “reddest” states in the country, Clarksdale is in one of the “bluest” counties in the country – largely because it’s nearly 80 percent African-American.

That isn’t to say it’s anywhere even remotely close to perfect. In general the African-American population of the Mississippi Delta is a whole lot poorer than the white population. (Though a lot of the white population isn't exactly flush, either.) But I can’t think of any place in the whole country where that isn’t also true. That’s a disgrace for all of us, no matter where we live.

There is, however, another form of segregation that is growing rapidly in the United States and I don’t want to be a part of it. This whole “red state” vs “blue state” thing. Too many people are hunkering down in enclaves of like-minded neighbors; communities consisting entirely of residents who think the same way, believe the same things, react and act the same way. That’s bad for all of us. What has allowed this country to thrive over the years has been the diversity of its population and the free range and exchange of ideas and beliefs that all those different people bring to their interactions with each other.

In poll after poll about gay marriage, it is shown that people who have gay friends and family members overwhelmingly support gay rights, even if they are “red staters” or very conservative or very religious. Look at Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, if you don’t believe that. But when gay people, or atheists, or liberals, or conservatives or Christians cling only to each other and don’t socialize and do business with and hang out with people who don’t believe or practice the same things they do, then the sort of long-lasting, deep societal change that starts on a respectful personal, not a political, level can’t happen.

The bottom line is that I’m moving to Mississippi because I love the place and it’s beautiful and I can live better or at least as well there as I can here in Los Angeles for a whole lot less money, and there’s the music and the people that I love, too. And yeah, Mississippi’s got problems, some of them worse than the problems here in L.A., some of them not nearly as bad. But find me a place without problems – hell, they even had riots in Sweden recently – and I wouldn’t want to live there anyhow. It would be boring.

Come and visit. I’ll show you what I mean.

14 February 2013

#1 FANTASY WITH A BULLET

I haven't blogged for quite some time. I've been relying more on Facebook - where I have a great many more "friends" than I have followers here on my blog. That makes me feel remiss. I like my blog better than I like Facebook, though it is less immediate and less gratifying in the responses that I get. Still, here I can blather on at a length that seems unseemly on Facebook.

What I am going to climb onto my high horse about today is guns. Here's what I've got to say:

The 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to apply to the right of individuals to own firearms. That horse has left the barn and there is no way to get it back in there unless the Court revisits and revises its decision - which is possible but unlikely - or Congress votes to amend the Constitution in regards to the matter, and then two-thirds of the states ratify that amendment - which is so unlikely as to be pretty much impossible.

But in all the carryings-on over defending the 2nd Amendment, people seem to ignore the words "well-regulated." Those words mean that the individual right to bear arms can be regulated by, for instance, restricting the ownership of certain types of weaponry - bazookas and tanks come to mind, fully-automatic weapons and by extension semi-automatic weapons or ammunition magazines over a certain size, or age requirements or background check requirements or a requirement that to purchase a gun a person needs to take a gun safety course first. There is nothing whatsoever unconstitutional about any of those regulations. You might not like them, you might be against them, fine, write your congressional representatives, but the constitutional argument against them doesn't hold water.

No constitutional right is absolute in any event. The classic example is that in spite of the guarantee of freedom of speech, you cannot yell "fire" in a crowded theater. Free speech, free press, freedom of religion (even if it's part of your belief system, you can't stone adulterers to death) are all regulated by the common good and common sense, and much of that is encoded into law.

And to be effective, those regulations need to be national, not state by state or city by city. Gun rights advocates love to point the finger of scorn at Chicago - a city with some of the strictest gun regulations in the country and a city with a horrifying amount of gun violence. See, they say, regulations don't work anyhow.

My sister lives in the heart of Chicago, right near Wrigley Field. The closest gun store to her is 3.7 miles away, just outside the Chicago city limits. The closest gun store to me, here in Los Angeles where there are fewer restrictions on guns, is 2.6 miles away. That's why Chicago's gun regulations don't work - if my sister wants a gun, I doubt that extra 1.1 mile drive is going to discourage her. It's not the regulations that don't work, it's the lack of coherence in them that doesn't work.

But, I have heard far too many people say, the right to bear arms protects all of our other rights, so it is the most basic, most essential right there is. If the government becomes a tyranny, how else are citizens to take matters into their own hands and overthrow it. To that I say - YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME. It's a romantic notion, but it's a fantasy.

Here in Los Angeles ex-cop turned cop-killer Chris Dorner took up arms against the tyrannical LAPD. He had extensive police and paramilitary training. He had a large arsenal of extremely powerful weapons - all of which, by the way, were obtained legally. (Even the fully-automatic weapons he used were legally bought semi-automatics that he had converted to full-auto with legally purchased kits to do just that.) He didn't last long and certainly didn't manage to change anything.

I actually read on Facebook, from several different people, that if only the Jews in Germany and Poland had been armed in the 1930s, the Holocaust wouldn't have happened. A couple of people cited the Warsaw Uprising as an example of what an armed citizenry could do in opposition to an oppressive government. Don't these people read history? The armed Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were heroes, certainly, but they were just as dead heroes by the end of it as the unarmed Jews in the extermination camps. It didn't work. It took other, more powerful, more populous, more technologically advanced governments to stop Hitler.

Even before the advent of modern weaponry controlled by the central government, the Confederacy took up arms in rebellion against the United States. They mounted huge armies, commanded by talented generals, possessed of weapons that while somewhat inferior to the Union troops, were closer to equal than any modern day insurgency could possibly employ against the government. The rebellion caused incredible bloodshed and destruction, but you might recall that it failed. It achieved, finally, only an unconditional surrender to the powers that be.

In fact, despite the occasional victory by groups of dedicated, armed insurgents against the generally overwhelming power of a government - the American Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, Vietnam - it usually goes the other way. And when the insurgents win, it is almost always because they are fighting off foreign occupiers, so they have tremendous support from the whole national population, or they are fighting a government that is barely clinging to power having lost all credibility with its citizens.

On top of which, other than the American Revolution, how many armed insurgencies can you name that resulted in a better country after they succeeded than the one they overthrew? Most of the people I know who are staunch defenders of gun rights sure as shit aren't about to pipe up with "Cuba, Vietnam..." And you sure as hell can't come up with any examples of a democratically elected government being overthrown by armed insurgents where it turned out for the best.

The thing about a democracy, even a flawed republican version of one like we've got, is that it is inherently vested with credibility by most of its citizens. Maybe you don't like President Obama, that's your right, but he was elected by a majority of voters in an election that no one has seriously claimed was in any way rigged. And his power is heavily constrained by something called the separation of powers. Perhaps you've noticed that he hasn't been able to do a whole lot of the things he has said he wants to do, because Congress won't let him. That's how it works. And in four years he will be gone and you will have your chance to elect your own President who plenty of other people also won't like, but too bad.

Our rights in this country are defended by a whole slew of things other than private citizens and their guns. By our laws. By our courts. By the separation of powers. By the fact that our population is so diverse, rather than homogenous - so it is very hard for any one group to gain full power over the others. (One of the arguments in favor of immigration that has, sadly, been lacking in the current discourse is that it helps protect our democracy and our rights.) By our culture of individualism and self-reliance. By the police, who are often called upon to defend even free speech that they might not like, but they know it is their duty to do so.

Sure, if in some fantasy dystopian future the president turns himself into a dictator and Congress and the courts allow it to happen and enough of the military and police forces go along with it to enforce it, I'd want to do what I could to overthrow that tyranny. But the chances of that are slim, while out of control gun violence in this country is all too real and immediate. And the chances of armed citizen insurgents succeeding against the armed forces of the U.S. are laughable.

20 September 2012

I HATE THE FOREST. SO, SUE ME.

Before I get into the perfectly rational though highly subjective reasons why I hate the forest, an apology to you, my dear readers. I have neglected this blog. I have, instead, been posting too much on Facebook. I shall endeavor to do better, though I make no promises.

And for those of you more interested in hearing about my career than my neuroses - such as hating the forest - my next blog post will attempt to catch you up on developments.

But meanwhile: I HATE THE FOREST

Everybody dreads something or somewhere and more often than not for reasons that are personal, emotional, irrational. That's how I am about the forest. You'll read why below. What do you, dear readers, dread and why? Let me know in the comments section. I'm curious.

This is on my mind because the picture below is of where I recently returned from. I was at Nahmakanta Lake, Maine, a place I have been known to refer to as Mooseville, Bumfuck County, Maine, for the wedding of my sister Katie.

While in Mooseville I engaged in several of the activities that one is encouraged to engage in in such a place. I kayaked a bit and liked it. I sat in rustic chairs looking out over the scenery and drank and had conversations and read and I liked that. The wedding itself was great, beautiful, fun, just the way that good weddings ought to be. I went on a hike, more of a walk really, and well, I didn't die.

The walk was along a beautiful stream, on a well-marked path through dense forest. I’m fully capable of realizing how beautiful it was. I spent the whole time, about two hours, nervous.

There were 11 people and two dogs so there was nothing to be at all nervous about. But there you have it, I was. The whole thing filled me with anxiety, dread even.

Something that happened on the way back to civilization made me aware of just why this was. On the way back to the car which we had left at the trail-head, I found myself in the lead. At one point we were supposed to veer off to the left onto the well-marked red path from the white path we were on. In part due to the fact that when I walk in the woods I spend the whole time looking at my feet in order to avoid tripping, and in part because the woods all look the same to me without anything in the way of reference points or landmarks, I missed the turn. That, in turn, caused everyone to miss the turn because they were relying on whoever was in the lead. It was no big deal. Even with the missed turn the trail we were on led us back to where we were going, adding only about 15 extra minutes to the endeavor.

But I would never, ever in a million years have done such a thing in any environment other than the woods.

I am almost always extremely well-oriented in terms of where I am. People who know me marvel at my remarkable sense of direction and of place. That's not true in the woods.

Among the things that make me feel confident and whole in cities and most environments is that sense of location and direction. And I am utterly abandoned by it in the forest.

Add to that the smell of the forest – which to me is the scent of dank decay, death even – and it’s just plain an environment that brings me close to panic. Throw in a snake and I will almost certainly drop instantly dead of a heart attack.

Give me open land any time. I don’t even need a city particularly. I like the desert and the un-wooded coast and agricultural expanses, prairies, savannah and river deltas and places like Bali where it is lush and green but it is terraced and tamed and everywhere you look there are indications of my fellow human beings at work. Those are the places where I feel like I belong, like I know where I am and what I'm doing.

Now don't get me wrong. It's just fine with me that you might love the forest. And I have no desire whatsoever to do any clear cutting. Not one bit of any of this is an objective assessment other than how I personally relate to it. Earth is so filled with different environments and landscapes that there is plenty to keep nearly everybody happy. Just keep me out from the midst of all those trees and I'll be just fine.

Finally, in a desperate attempt to relate this to what I do in life, trees make pulp which makes paper which is what sooner or later my writing usually ends up on. I'll write about writing next time.

09 June 2012

MUSINGS ON A MILESTONE BIRTHDAY


If you believe in Chinese astrology – which I don’t, or any other form of astrology either – I was born in the year of the Water Dragon.

According to Water Dragon, Inc. – is there anything for which there isn’t a website, or a company? – here’s what that means:

“In Chinese element theory, water produces wood, which signifies growth and is the natural element of the dragon. The dragon governs east/southeast, wealth accumulation & the hours of 7 a.m. - 9 a.m. Associated with thunder, lightning and arousal, the Water Dragon personifies creativity at its best.”

In spite of what that would seem to imply, I’m generally not all that interested in love- or money-making between seven and nine a.m. I need my coffee first. (I do enjoy the occasional good morning lightning and thunder storm.)

I do also like to think of myself as creative, though, and I am usually at my desk by eight a.m. at the latest.

So I’m turning 60 on June 20th. If I believed in all this astrology nonsense it would be the second most significant birthday of my life. (The day of my birth, obviously being the most important.) I suppose 120 would be up there, too, but I am unlikely to be around to enjoy it. In rough, realistic terms my glass is probably no more than a quarter to a third full anymore.

It seems as good a time as any for a bit of introspective reflection on where I’ve been and where I’m going.

It’s been a very good life, remarkable even. I have been extraordinarily privileged thanks to the very good fortune I had to be born when and where I was and to my particular parents.

I haven’t cured cancer or stopped hunger or been the cause of peace breaking out anywhere. But I do think I have managed to get some small amount of good stuff done in both the public and personal arenas. (Undoubtedly some bad stuff, too, on the personal level but hey, in his private life even Gandhi was no saint.) I am confident that there are some people whose lives have been improved by some of the things I’ve done. There are fewer who, maybe not so much – but they’ve got over it.

Don’t worry, I have no intention here of listing what I think of as my accomplishments. Though I do take pride in enough of them that I feel I’ve made an adequate, even if not herculean effort to live up to what I regard as my responsibilities to our planet and the people who inhabit it. I have every intention of continuing those efforts.

I have, however, like most people with the financial and physical ability to do so, made a far greater effort toward indulging my whims, interests and urges over the years. I’ve been lucky enough to achieve notable success at that.

Judge it, if you want, as you will. It has all made for a very enjoyable, satisfying life so far, one that I’ve happily shared with family, friends, acquaintances and even strangers.

If someone were to tell me that I was going to die tomorrow I’d be disappointed. There’s an upcoming trip to Tijuana and another back to Mississippi that I’d sure hate to miss. I still haven’t got to Tierra del Fuego or Kamchatka or the Carpathian Alps or Ethiopia. But I wouldn’t think it was really all that premature. I have lived the hell out of the life I’ve had and I intend to keep doing that as long as I can.

So, happy birthday to me. Thank you all for helping to make it so enjoyable getting to here. I’m looking forward to more of it.

21 May 2012

Sorry Barack, Not Too Bad So Far But Still Not Far Enough On Gay Rights

Before I start in on criticizing him, I want to assure you, my readers, that I do intend to vote for the re-election of Barack Obama. While in some ways he has been something of a disappointment as president, I do think he has largely done a pretty good job against nearly overwhelming odds. He has managed to accomplish, or at least begin to accomplish, some good things that have already begun to - and if the Supreme Court and the Republicans don't get in the way - will do even more good for a lot of people in the years to come.

His healthcare bill is badly cobbled together, it is far too incomplete, and may well even make things worse for people like me who have to buy their own insurance. But it's a start. And like most sweeping legislation throughout the history of this country, it is likely to be improved upon over time. (Allowing insurance companies to sell policies across state lines would be a good start to making things better.)

While the country's economic recovery is slow, at least we're recovering. Obama continued and expanded upon many of the things that the Bush administration initiated. (I love it when Republicans criticize him for continuing what Bush started.) That has certainly helped prevent the bust and recession from turning into a massive economic depression. He courageously did some of what he did in the way of economic stimulus in the face of opposition from the left wing of his own party. And that stimulus, with all its attendant problems, is likely what has kept our economy as afloat as it is.

Sadly, in the course of all that stimuli, any meaningful reform to oversight and regulation of the financial industry in this country got trampled underfoot. We might be recovering, but in another ten to 15 to 20 years it's all going to happen all over again.

You get the picture. I could go on at great length about things I've liked and not liked about his presidency. I think he's done okay. I'll give him, I don't know, a solid B-minus / C-plus so far. In reality I think that's pretty good under the circumstances. He isn't a dictator, we live in a democracy. When a mature democracy works to improve things it tends to do it incrementally rather than in big leaps and bounds. And that's probably a good thing. Incremental change is much more likely to be sustainable over the long haul.

But Barack, what the hell is this nonsense of yours about gay marriage being an issue for the states? Sure, I'm glad you finally came out and said that you support the right of gay people to marry. But then you went and undermined it with this bullshit about it being a state issue.

Yeah, sure, just like civil rights for African-Americans should have been a state issue.

We are talking about a fundamental human right here, not speed limits. A gay couple who are married in, say, Iowa, still can't:

File a joint federal income tax return.

Give each other gifts without being regulated by the federal tax code's limitations on gift giving that is exempt from taxation as income.

Simply assume possession of what should be their joint estate upon the death of one of the spouses, without being subject to federal estate taxes.

Have their marriage and all the attached rights and responsibilities of marriage recognized if they move from one state to another. If they were filing joint state taxes in, say, Massachusetts, then they move to New Jersey, they have to go back to filing separate state taxes. The same is true for a whole wide range of matters, from hospital visitation rights to the status of adopted children, etc..

When they return from trips overseas and file customs forms, the duty free exemption for what they purchased while out of the country is still counted per individual rather than as a household.

There are undoubtedly a whole lot of other problems with treating marriage as an issue for the states as well, but those are the ones that immediately spring to mind. So Barack, just as you wouldn't want to have to use the "Colored" restroom when you are in Mississippi rather than in New York because it should be left up to the states how they want to deal with fundamental human rights issues, gay people and marriage deserve the same treatment.

23 March 2012

WHY I AM AN ATHEIST - STANDING UP TO BE COUNTED

Tomorrow, Saturday March 24 there will be a rally in Washington D.C. called the Reason Rally. It is largely a gathering of my fellow atheists standing up publically for what they believe. I wish I could be there to stand up and be counted, too. Instead I have to rely on this, my blog.

In spite of all the self-serving crap from the religious right about the “war on Christianity,” those people are getting away with murder. Literally, in some instances. Atheists on the other hand are sometimes fired from their jobs, discriminated against, reviled and ridiculed publically, beaten even, ignored at best – all because of their beliefs.

Yes, we atheists are believers. We believe in reason and science and the golden rule. We believe in the wonders of the universe, the magnificence of the natural world and deeply feel the excitement that comes from the reasoned efforts to understand and make sense of it.

The idea that the world all around us is there because of the actions of some god – however you want to define “god” – is a feeble oversimplification that attempts to come to terms with things that people can’t explain, or simply don’t like or believe. “I don’t understand it, it must be the hand of god.”

How sad is that? Talk about taking all the wonder and majesty and glory and complexity out of it

Progress, all progress whether in the sciences or the humanities or the arts or economics or politics or anything else, comes about when people don’t take things on faith, when they don’t rest on tradition, when they don’t simply fall back on life being at the will or whim of some greater power.

All progress stems from dissatisfaction and curiosity. Let’s see how this thing works. Let’s see how to make it better. I wonder if we can fly? Why are there so many poor people? What can we do to fix that? My back itches, how am I going to reach it to scratch it?

The “power” of prayer, of faith, adherence to tradition just gets in the way.

Speaking for myself, as there is no way that any sane person could ever hope to represent the diverse views of us atheists, while I have nothing against religious people (unless they are trying to cram their religion down my or my country’s throat) and even count some among my friends and family, I loathe religion. All religion, any religion, take your pick.

Most atheists are afraid to say something like that because it might get them in trouble. Just coming out as an atheist can cause problems. I’ve been yelled at by seemingly nice enough people when I merely told them I was an atheist. I’ve been told that I couldn’t possibly be, that I am too smart to be an atheist and dismissed as a nutjob. (As if the belief in god isn’t even nuttier.) I know some fellow atheists who have been slugged and tossed out of places for owning up to their beliefs.

But I’m willing to say it again. Not only am I an atheist, but I loathe religion. I think it is a great evil, that has caused and still causes more pain and suffering and harm than it does good. It doesn’t matter the slightest to me that a large majority of people profess some sort of faith. It may be a base, primitive human need, but that doesn’t make it good, or right.

And like it or not, hating religion and not believing in god does not make me a bad person. I, and I’d venture to guess most of the people who know me, consider me to be a generally pretty good, decent sort of guy. (No doubt with a few quirks, but that’s for some other blog post some other time.)

I do not try to do the right things in my life because I am afraid of hell, or some sort of eternal torment or being excluded from an eternal life (another thing I loathe – harp music) or because I’ll be reincarnated as a cockroach.

I do the right thing as often as I can for several reasons. Simply because it is the right thing. Because of the adage – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Because of wanting to go along to get along. And in some cases because I don’t want to end up in jail which sounds like hell enough to me.

So I’m glad that my fellow atheists are standing up publically to show their faces, to do the same thing that the gay rights movement did when it took up chants such as, “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” That’s one of the things I’m saying in this blog.

But I am a little disappointed by the failure of tomorrow’s rally to address some specific issues on which we atheists should be leading the charge. In my mind the most important has to do with the impact of faith-based finance in the public arena. This is particularly important in an election year.

Religious organizations in this country have a lot of money. They’re able to use that money to push their political agenda – whatever agenda that may be. They can mobilize their congregations to show up at rallies, canvass districts, get out the vote, donate to super-pacs. Because of all that they are invaluable to politicians, who are in turn terrified to do anything that might alienate them.

And one of the main reasons that religious groups have all that money is that they are given huge tax exemptions to go about their business. Rather than the state making war on churches, as so many religious right wingers like to claim, religious organizations get enormous advantages granted to them by the government.

The Catholic Church, Scientology and several Jewish temples and organizations are among the largest landowners in Los Angeles County for example. They don’t pay any property tax.

Religious affiliated charities are regarded as non-profits and are tax exempt, as are contributions to them. The Catholic Diocese in Los Angeles raided those charitable coffers to defend pedophile priests and build its giant new downtown cathedral – the Taj [Cardinal] Mahoney, a monument to venality and crass opulence. Other religious groups use their tax-deductible contributions to fund and fill anti-abortion rallies, to lobby the government to leave Israel alone about the building of settlements in the occupied territories, to take cruises and drive expensive cars and… you name it.

There is a very large gray area in which religions and their charities operate, where it is nearly impossible to separate their religious activities from their public, secular ones. The scope for, and actual abuse of these tax exemptions is enormous. And it is especially bad at a time when most governments, from the federal on down to the cities, could use the money.

Tax the churches ought to be one of the rallying cries at tomorrow’s rally. Let’s really separate church and state by not giving churches huge advantages over everyone else. Let them go about their business on their own, without taking money out of our pockets by not paying their fair share.

For all you religious folk out there, there is even a Bible verse that supports what I’m saying: “And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. And they marvelled at him.” – Mark 12: 17, King James version.