29 August 2009


I grew up in California where an "outdoor store" meant REI or some similar eco-friendly, lightweight hi-tech-geared frolic in the wilderness kind of place. I'm not sure what the East Coast equivalent is - maybe EMS (Eastern Mountain Stores.) It wasn't until I started driving back and forth across the country on my book tours, that I encountered Cabela's.

It is, as my girlfriend put it when I first took her to one, "REI for people who like to shoot stuff."

Now I happen to like Cabela's. I don't hunt, fish, butcher my own meat or many of the other things that one can equip oneself for there, but still, I find the enormous stores endlessly fascinating. And they do carry a large variety of stuff that I do want: clothing, shoes, geegaws and doodads, pocket knives, great first aid kits, the best selection of cast iron cookware I've ever seen, etc.

The sad thing about this is that I have a number of friends here on the West Coast, and some on the East Coast who are going to think I'm being sarcastic, or ironic, or something other than honest about the fact that I like Cabela's so much. You know who you are.

I would like to encourage those friends of mine to take a couple of long road trips across the country; taking their time, talking with a whole lot of people whose lives are different than their own, seeing the stores that sell different stuff, eating the food that most people in this country really eat, etc. I do not think it is possible to truly understand or appreciate the United States when you confine yourself to its coasts, and maybe from time to time Chicago.

Now that isn't to say that there aren't some things about places like Cabela's that I dont' find bewildering. I just received their fall catalog in the mail, and here are some items from it that I find odd, amusing, interesting. I can understand what they're for, and why some of my fellow Cabela's shoppers might find them indispensable; but as I mentioned, I don't hunt. At least not the sort of hunting this stuff is for.

I do suppose that if I ever want to show up at a Halloween party costumed as Bigfoot, this would come in very handy.

On the other hand, if I do find myself in the woods during hunting season, I'd far rather be dressed in colors that scream, "Don't shoot!."

It has been said that accessories make the outfit. Paris Hilton, and others of her ilk, most likely do not shop much at Cabela's. But one of the accessories I've seen pictures of her with, is her pooch in her purse. I was pleased to see that Cabela's offers its version of the same thing. And a much more impressive version in my opinion.

As mentioned earlier, I do honestly like Cabela's, a lot. But there are certain things about it that give my Left Coast-liberal, gun-control-favoring heart and head moments of pause. I find the text on this page somewhat frightening. I don't think Ted Nugent would. But I never much liked his music either."The Freak Nasty is just that. It's the bad boy of the ScentBlocker® line. It has everything I need to get close and drop the hammer on the big boys."

21 August 2009


What I want, of course, is what anyone in their right mind would want - a free lunch. I don't want to have to pay for anything, ever. Even if I decide I want cosmetic surgery for no more good reason than vanity, I want that for free.

I also want a new camera for free. And every book I now pay for. And gasoline. And super premium single malt whisky. And won't someone pay off my mortgage, please?

Okay, so I'm not going to get any of that. So what do I want that I might reasonably expect to get?

I was extremely happy with my healthcare when I lived in Hong Kong. It wasn't cheap, about US$3,600 per year that came out of my own pocket since my employer didn't pick up the tab. (I wasn't hired on "expat terms." My ex-wife's company paid for her insurance, but not mine.)

What I got for that $300 per month was, in essence, a credit card that never came due. The bills went to someone else who very kindly paid them on my behalf. Every licensed doctor in Hong Kong accepted the card. When I traveled, if I needed medical attention - for instance when I came down with malaria in Jakarta and went to a clinic there - I presented the card, they called a phone number on the back of it, and obtained authorization to take care of me. Doctor's offices, clinics, hospitals could make that call from anywhere, collect. (Not dentists though. At the time Hong Kong was a British colony and, well, you know what Brits teeth are like.)

The card was provided by a private insurance company, although it, like the very high-quality free, government-provided healthcare in Hong Kong, was heavily subsidized by horse racing. At the time there were a mere seven million or so of us living in Hong Kong, and the two racetracks made more money than most of the other racetracks in the world, combined. It was only reasonable that the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club should fork over enough cash to pay a big chunk of my healthcare.

Actually, other than that bout of malaria, I was pretty healthy for the 12 years I had that insurance. The company no doubt made a quite reasonable profit on the $43,200 I paid in premiums. (The clinic in Jakarta would have been relatively cheap, even if I had to pay for it myself.)

I wish I still had that magical card. I just paid the annual premium for the utterly inadequate medical insurance I've got now - $4,780.60, plus another $239.40 to something called the Alliance for Affordable (sic) Services that I have to be a member of to get my insurance at all.

Last year, a year in which I did everything I possibly could to avoid going to the doctor or the dentist, and during which I was basically healthy - a few minor sniffles, Lipitor, blood pressure medicine, nothing out of the ordinary for a man my age - I had $7,928 in un-reimbursed, out-of-pocket medical expenses. (That was a whole lot better than 2005 when, in spite of being insured, my un-reimbursed, out-of-pocket medical expenses came to something over $20,000 thanks to a minor surgery for which my insurance did kick in about $9,000.)

I WANT MY HONG KONG MEDICAL INSURANCE BACK! Or something like it. I'd even pay more for it if I had to, say, $7,928 (oh hell, let's be generous and round it up to $8,000) per year.

Okay, so that's not going to happen. And even if it did, I'm lucky, I could (not easily, but I could) afford to pay more money for better health insurance. A lot of people couldn't.

On the other hand, what if there was something like this:

---Mandatory catastrophic medical insurance for everybody, that they could buy either through private insurance companies, or also through an expansion of the Medicare system. (Medicare's administrative costs are surprisingly efficient compared with most private insurers.) The private companies would set their own premiums and the buy-in to Medicare would be available to everyone on a sliding scale based on income. (Rich people would pay more, poor people less, really poor people would get it for free.) That might also help prop up Medicare, which is headed for demographic disaster if something isn't done. Private insurers would have to lower their premiums or increase their coverage to compete.

---The mandatory catastrophic coverage should have a preventative care and screening component. Something along the lines of a free comprehensive physical exam for everybody once every five years to a certain age, three years during another age range, and two years after that. That should include such things as colonoscopys (a matter of some concern to me, who is about to have to pay for one out of my own pocket), mammograms and other such procedures that actually serve to lower medical costs by finding problems at earlier stages than they might have been found otherwise.

---Private insurance companies would be freed from the current restrictions by which they have to offer a different plan for every state they do business in, so that they could offer competing, nationwide plans for the catastrophic, as well as other levels of insurance. That would create a greater economy of scale, and competition, which would almost certainly lead to either lower premiums or better coverage. I'm a member of the Author's Guild. It offers health insurance to its members, but not to its members in California because it's just too expensive here. If Cigna, who I think is their insurance carrier, could offer the same plan to cover all Author Guild members no matter what state they lived in, it would be a win-win for everybody concerned.

---In exchange for opening up the national market to private insurers, the insurance companies would have to offer coverage to anybody, regardless of pre-existing conditions or the numerous other factors they currently use to deny coverage to anyone who they think might actually have a use for it. And they could better afford to do that, since the pool of insured people would grow and the risk would be spread thinner than it currently is.

---There should also be mandated transparency in medical care costs. It is currently almost impossible to be an informed consumer of healthcare. My pending colonoscopy is a case in point. Since I'm going to have to pay for it myself - it isn't covered by my insurance (I guess they'd rather pay for treating colon cancer after it makes itself obvious, than at an early stage when it's cheaper and easier to treat) - I've been calling around trying to find out what it's going to cost. If I want to buy a new computer, I have no trouble finding out what that's going to cost. A colonoscopy? Not so much. So far I have found no one price from anybody. All anybody can tell me is what they might charge for their little part of it - doctor, anesthesiologist, the facility, the pathology, some other bits and pieces. (Actually, I did find one stop shopping at a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. But it isn't so much cheaper than what I think I'll end up paying here, that I'm going to go there.) That's stupid. No matter what sort of healthcare coverage we end up with, there are bound to be some procedures that we're going to have to pay for ourselves. And we ought to be able to shop for them the same way we'd shop for anything else.

We are never going to see a British, or even Canadian or Dutch style medical care system in this country. It ain't gonna happen. It's too expensive at this point in our development and with our demographics, and there is too much (a lot of it justified) suspicion of government running almost anything in this country. (Although the ravings about denial of care are ludicrous. In every country where there is "socialized medicine" a private option is also available that is very similar to what people can get here. And on average, people who can't afford the private option still get better treatment than they would here in the U.S. where they have only emergency rooms or the occasional free clinic to rely on.)

But there needs to be a realization that healthcare is, to a certain point, a national security and economic issue. A healthy population is a more productive population. Illness is expensive, not just to the sick person, but to society as a whole. It is as essential for government to have a role in seeing after the health of its citizens, as it is to build roads, schools and maintain a military defense.

11 August 2009


Once, I really irritated the Minister of the Environment of Indonesia. I interviewed him for a magazine. But I also had to photograph him. It was easier, and more to the point - cheaper, to have me do both than to send a separate writer and photographer.

I called his office and scheduled an hour for the interview. I told his assistant that the photographer (I didn't let on that it was also me) wouldn't be able to work at the same time, so could we either schedule an additional half hour following the interview, or, if not, another time to take the photos? The photo session was scheduled for the day after the interview.

The interview went well. The next day, when I showed up with my camera equipment, not so much. Why, the Minister quite rightly wondered, had I not simply taken his picture when I interviewed him?

Luckily, his English was good. While I'm not sure he bought it, at least he did understand my explanation that photography and writing are very different; that despite the fact that I am experienced at both, it is nearly impossible to do a good job of both at the same time. They need to be approached separately. It helped that when the article came out, he liked the pictures.

When I travel, I will often alternate days with my camera and without it, sometimes going back to the same places. When I'm taking pictures, I am thinking visually. I notice the sounds, and smells and feel of places, but not quite so much as I do when I'm not looking at them through a viewfinder. When I write, I want my descriptions of places and people to go a lot deeper than only how they look.

It's one reason why nobody ever really likes their wedding pictures. (I ought to know, way back when I shot eight weddings. I made good money doing it. After the last, I swore I'd never do it again.) It's a big day, full of feelings and memories of smells and sounds and the rustle of dresses and the swirl of the first dance and all that sort of stuff. Two-dimensional photos just aren't enough to convey it. They always seem, somehow, inadequate. And everyone blames the photographer.

This is on my mind today because I'm printing photos for my combo book event / photo show that's taking place in downtown L.A. on Thursday evening. Be there.

Thursday, August 13, 7pm
Metropolis Books
440 S. Main St.
Los Angeles, CA

06 August 2009

7,963.2 MILES

I got home Saturday night. I was exhausted. Big surprise. I haven't done much since. I did read a chunk of SHANGHAIED to the 70, 80 - it was a big turnout - people at the Sisters in Crime L.A. Chapter meeting on Sunday. A big shout out to SinC. It's a great organization. I'm proud and pleased to say that I'm probably going to be on the local board of directors next year.

It seems to me that this year's Drive-By Book Tour was a great success. Not that I'm on any best seller lists. Well, that's not strictly true, I did make it onto Poisoned Pen's June best selling trade paperbacks list and I won't be surprised if I end up on similar lists at a few other stores for June or July.

But I had events at 14 stores. I visited some 30 or so others. (Few of which were carrying my books, but at least they now know about me.) I met a whole lot of great people along the way, stuffed myself with things that are bad for my arteries - it's been grilled fish and vegetables since getting home - and saw more of this remarkable country.

People always ask me if I really think big book tours are cost effective. It depends on what you want out of them.

Did this one even come close to paying for itself in book sales? HELL NO!

Was it one of the best, though tiring, vacations I've had in a very long time? YOU BETCHA! (Do I need to put a registered trademark symbol next to that to acknowledge Sarah Palin?)

Is it useful in the long run in terms of career and sales building? Possibly, at least I like to think so.

It's a good thing that I drive, and that I carry around extra boxes of books in my trunk. I ran out of the books I brought. About half the stores I visited needed to "borrow" books from me to satisfy demand. That's a good sign.

In the past, I might have divided any number of things into the nearly 8,000 miles I drove on this book tour: number of people, number of books signed, number of times I was asked if Ray Sharp is me, pieces of chicken, bites of pork, etc. But nope, I'm not gonna do that this time. I enjoyed every single mile of it. Well, maybe not the 2.6 miles I drove looking for dinner in Fort Stockton, Texas, not so much.