20 September 2012


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


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


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.

16 March 2012


While standing in the long, slow security line for a recent flight to Chicago, juggling to get my laptop and a small bag of liquid and gels out of my bags, my coat off, my belt off, my shoes off my feet, my pockets emptied, the loathsome med-alert necklace off from around my neck, I noticed a sign I’d never seen before. “Passengers 12 and under do not need to remove their shoes and coats.”

This morning as I was leafing through the L.A. Times over my coffee, I came across this article: “A pass for some older air travelers.” The gist of the story is that starting this coming Monday, some air travelers 75 or older will also be allowed through security lines without taking off their shoes, coats, etc. and will be much less likely to be asked to step aside to be frisked. The program is being started on a trial basis in Chicago, Denver, Orlando and Portland, Oregon because those airports have a high percentage of elderly travelers.

I have long suspected that an awful lot of what the TSA makes us go through in airport security lines is more for show than for actual security. Maybe the show does have a deterrent effect on most of us. But now they’ve just announced that two whole groups of people don’t have to worry about it.

Are there no elderly terrorists? Or are there no old people who can’t be convinced, bribed, bullied or blackmailed into carrying weapons and/or explosives onto an airplane? “We’ve got your beloved grandson, put this under your coat.”

One of my grandmothers was a fairly nasty piece of work, and bullheaded and wasn’t going to do what she didn’t want to do for anybody or any reason. The other, however, all sweetness and light and fluff was as gullible as a person gets – she could be manipulated into almost anything.

And kids? Don’t get me started on kids. They are little more than short sociopaths, especially these days when they are constantly told they are everybody’s little darlings. A kid will do anything if you approach it right and dangle the right treat in front of it. “Mommy loves you, darling. I know the vest is heavy under your coat and that your shoes fit funny, but don’t worry, it won’t be for long and you’ll get your reward soon.”

I’ve always been nervous when I’ve spotted nuns on planes that I’m on. What are they keeping under their habits? Now add the elderly and kids to the list.

06 March 2012


I just finished doing my taxes for 2011. It was not a good year. I had $13,821 in deductible, unreimbursed medical expenses (including my over $5,000 insurance premium.)

Which is to say that I've got health insurance. My insurance did pay more than $13,821 on my behalf, but not a whole lot more.

It's a very good thing that my blood clot was diagnosed in Mississippi. It's nearly impossible to figure these things out exactly - what hospitals charge for medical care is about as transparent as the average lead-lined bank vault - but from what I have been able to gather, had my clot been diagnosed here in Los Angeles and had I gone to Cedars-Sinai (the big name hospital in town) it would have cost me and my insurance company at least three times as much money.

And I don't see how any of that is going to change with the new healthcare law.

Certainly, as of 2014 if the Republicans don't manage to dump the thing - which I don't think they will - I'll be able to get health insurance even if I want to change plans, even with my pre-existing conditions. And that's not a bad thing, nothing to sneeze at.

But I'm still going to have to pay through the nose for it. Possibly even more than I do now because the insurance companies aren't prevented from raising their rates to make up for what they see as higher costs. The word "affordable" in the act's actual name of record is laughable.

And if I need to use it, it's still not going to cover me well enough to avoid enormous out of pocket expenses.

I don't know what the solution is to any of this. The asswipes on both sides of the Congressional aisle talk about increasing competition among the insurance companies as a way to lower prices. Yet no one has bothered doing the simple thing of allowing companies to sell insurance across state lines - using the lower costs in, say, Mississippi to help offset the higher costs here in California. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know there are complications involved, but are they really any less surmountable than all the grief that the current system is causing?)

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that at some point in the next 10 to 15 or so years I have but one of several alternatives:

Get rich, really rich, somehow or another.

Move to a more civilized country where even if they don't have a national health care plan, at least health care is affordable - like Thailand or Costa Rica or Romania.

Suicide - a trip to a pet store in Mexico to stock up on Pentobarbital isn't such a bad idea. (By way of a related aside - read my friend Ashley Ream's recently published book: Losing Clementine.)

That's all I've got to say about my taxes this year. Well, I do wish to hell that I owed a whole lot of taxes, enormous amounts of taxes, enough to kill at least one Taliban fighter (which is pretty damn expensive) or fill 50 or 60 potholes on my street even - which is a lot less expensive. If I did, it would mean I made a whole lot more money than I did.

09 January 2012


Last year I had a short story published in the anthology Bangkok Noir. I received my first royalty check for it today - 2,383.83 Thai Baht (US$74.97 as of this morning.) Not a big amount of money, but only the first check and certainly better than nothing.

When I lived in Asia from 1986 to 1997 checks in foreign currencies weren't a problem. I could even deposit them to my accounts with Citibank in Hong Kong or Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank through their ATMs and the money, in my choice of Hong Kong or U.S. dollars, would show up in my account within about 24 hours if they were for a freely traded currency like Thai Baht. Less freely traded currencies like Chinese Yuan might take an extra day. Sure, they'd make some money by giving me a lousier exchange rate than I might otherwise get, but it still wasn't a bad rate.

Coming to the U.S. could present problems, however. We may well be the world's largest and most globally influential economy, but just as fewer Americans speak languages other than English than people in other countries speak languages other than their native tongue, fewer American banks seem to know much about the rest of the world.

Once I was in New York city and I needed cash. I had a Hong Kong dollar one thousand dollar bill in my wallet. (US$128.20 - it's a fixed rate and has been for many years.) In Hong Kong there are three different types of banknotes, issued by three different banks: Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, Standard Chartered Bank and Bank of China. I was in New York's Chinatown where there is a large branch of Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, so I went in there to change my Hong Kong money into U.S. dollars. (The HK thousand dollar bill had a big picture of Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank's headquarters on it. The same picture was on all the brochures in the bank and hanging on the walls of the bank branch in frames.)

The teller had no idea what I was talking about. She said, "But how will I know how much this is worth?" I suggested that it was probably in her computer system and pretty easy to access. She seemed quite flummoxed by that.

Finally, I asked to see a manager. A manager came over, looked at the bill and said, "How do I know this is really a Hong Kong dollar banknote?" I suggested that might be true of any banknote from anywhere, and that perhaps she ought to compare the picture on the banknote with identical pictures in their very own brochures.

In any event, after about a half hour of toing and froing I was turned away.

So, this morning when I received my royalty check I had a nagging suspicion that it wasn't going to be a simple matter to simply deposit it into my U.S. bank account. So I called. My bank branch sent me to some central bank phone line in North Carolina who sent me to BofA's foreign currency phone line. At least they knew what I was talking about and what Thai baht are.

If the check was worth US$200 or more, Bank of America could send it back to the bank in Thailand "for collection." That would cost US$40, plus whatever fees, commissions, postage, etc. were incurred along the way by either BofA or United Overseas Bank of Thailand. It would take four to eight weeks and maybe I'd then get what remained of the money in my U.S. account.

I suppose I can frame the check and hang it over my desk along with my Enron stock certificate. I did email the publisher and ask if there was some way they could reissue the check in U.S. dollars. If not, I think I will assign my royalties to Colin Cotterill, a good pal, a great writer, who lives in Thailand and runs charitable education programs in Laos. US$74.97 can probably do a lot more good in Laos than it can in my bank account.