Monday, October 3, 2011

Further to Der Alte

At birthday celebration on Saturday, with youngest great-granddaughter.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

First dream

This is the first I remember, probably from 1955 or 1956.

My mother takes my brother and me to a restaurant/cocktail lounge. She is dressed in a tweed suit (jacket and skirt) of a sort of blue-purple with yellow and black highlights., with a matching hat—more a beret, really. This is apparently during one of my mother’s blonde phases. The suit existed, BTW.

As children, we are not permitted in the bar/lounge. We are required to wait outside. Before we are removed from the premises I glance inside and see my mother at the bar sipping a drink from a straw in her distinctive tweed suit.

Richard and I (in the dream I seem much closer in age and ability to Richard) wait outside the tavern seated on the ground against a wooden packing crate painted in yellow. The crate in turn abuts the building. It is mid-day. We fall asleep.

We wake up. It is now late in the afternoon, and the sun is very low. We are still seated against the packing crate, but whereas this had formerly been up against the wall of the tavern, it is now ten feet away. We somehow never registered that movement.

I peer into the restaurant. Where formerly it had been bustling with patrons, the space is empty save for cobwebs. No one has been in this room for many years. There is no sign of our mother. Behind the bar—o, sweet Jesus!—an animate skeleton is mixing drinks, and at this point I wake up wailing and my parents depart the party-in-progress to quiet me down.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

(Just at the moment, in the “Delta Club” at SFO)

Richard Careaga and I go back fifty-nine years. I was not paying complete attention for about the first thirty-six or forty months of this period, but from that time forward, and until he quit what remained of the ancestral hearth in September 1965, I studied him closely and attempted energetically if erratically to model my life on his. I was already on a skewed trajectory destined to bury the point in wilderness far removed from my intended target, but everything I am today is informed by the slavish adoration and emulation with which I regarded him from the earliest months during which my initial impressions coalesced into my first memories.

He would have been eight and change and I three and change. I was aware of my parents, but these then appeared vast, gigantic conditions of nature rather than actors within it. Richard loomed large enough to my toddler vantage, but still of sufficiently human scale to command my devotion rather than my uncomprehending love and awe. As I gradually developed a more nuanced comprehension of my family, Richard was my reliable guide and intermediary, explaining, intervening, protecting. He did all this even as he extended his own social circle to his peers. I vividly remember him cycling away from me in 1957 to join his friends. I was more than prepared to be party to that conversation; they, likely not so much. “Rich!” I screeched, “R-i-i-i-ch!” —and the bicycle with its rider disappeared at the western end of Index Street faster than my stubby little legs could carry me.

He’s always been the overachiever of the family (although he’d feel uncomfortable to hear himself so described) and his younger sibs stand in awe of him: spare us, Richard, the “impostor syndrome” bullshit. Noted and dismissed. He stayed here at the Crumbling Manse™ the past two evenings and even though his flight back to Florida does not leave until curfew this evening elected to head off to SFO in mid-afternoon. This seemed loopy to Lina, but I understood: it is better to be five hours early for a flight than one minute late. This is the Careaga Way, and I salute my bro (ensconced, I trust, in the fabulous premium appurtenances of the “Delta Club” from this moment until the boarding call) on his way back east.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Der Alte...

Turns ninety today. Our relations have been, oh my, fraught for almost sixty years, but he is a survivor, an irascible survivor, and I pay tribute to my onlie living true begettor. He’s been one of life’s hungry men since his childhood: hungry for adventure, hungry for advancement, hungry for information, hungry for knowledge. The picture above was taken when he was about twenty, shortly after he joined the merchant marine to see the world. A few weeks later there was a dust-up at Pearl Harbor, and just a day before transfers out of the merchant marine were frozen for the duration he jumped to the Marine Corps, and stormed across the South Pacific from Guadalcanal until he very nearly perished in the course of the Guam landings in July 1944 (interestingly, among the Navy physicians waiting offshore was James V. McNulty, who was the attending OB/GYN in Los Angeles as I spilled into the world a little over eight years later).

Along with my mother, my dad passed along to all his children a love of reading that stood us in good stead as many of our cohort were hypnotized by TV. Because the 1950s middle class strove to improve itself (rather than racing, as the remains of that class appear to me in my own late middle age, to conform to a lewd, violent and vulgar popular culture), he subscribed to a series of classical music “great performances,” delivered by mail on LPs, and these formed, together with the Broadway musicals for which I’ve never lost a taste, and the “American songbook” standards I came subsequently to rediscover, the basis for my own musical re-education beginning in about 1972.

Our relations have been intermittently difficult over the years, and it is quite certain that neither of us will live long enough for a meeting of minds regarding the President (I’m fer; he’s agin) or half-term Governor Palin (he thinks she’s swell; I think she’s, well...). That doesn’t matter. I wish I’d understood years earlier the importance he places on his opinions eliciting respect (not necessarily actual agreement) from his children because they’re his opinions. I would not have persisted so loudly or so long in dissenting.

So, happy birthday, Dad. You’ve outlasted the rest of your initial family by decades, and I hope that you continue with all due vigor past the C-mark. You have passed on your insatiable intellectual curiosity demonstrably down two and likely three generations. Your sons and daughter will all gather this weekend at Sis’ house to lavish tribute upon you.

Monday, August 29, 2011

After seeing “Restrepo” last night...

On the Atlantic site, regular contributor Jeffrey Goldberg posts this incontrovertible evidence of the wickedness of America’s foes in “The Real Meaning of 9/11.” Money quote:

Imagine, for a moment, you are Marwan al-Shehhi, the lead hijacker of Flight 175. You see Christine Hanson among the passengers on the plane you had just hijacked — a two-year-old child, seated on her father's lap — and you fly the plane carrying this child into the South Tower of the World Trade Center anyway.

A precious lisping little toddler, slain by a murderous Islamist who has determined to carry out an act of war (as Marwan al-Shehhi certainly perceived it—specialists in international law may certainly contend the question)…is that not just dreadful? And he actually might have seen her precious little pudgy cheeks, pictured above, and still gone ahead and killed scores of scores of innocents.

Christine Hanson’s face serves as well to represent the many hundreds of children done to death by American ordnance in Afghanistan and Iraq in the ten years since “Nine-Eleven.” They were as beloved by their parents; they deserved as little to die; they were wept over by their surviving kin; they were murdered as cold-bloodedly as Christine, little as our cheerleading polyester proletariat cares to acknowledge this.

As moral counterweight to the pitiless character of Marwan al-Shehhi we have Brad Broadshoulders, who pilots a Stealth bomber, Peter Pureheart, who controls a Predator drone from Langley, Steve Strongsinew, who programs cruise missiles, and Dirk Granite, who calls in airstrikes upon suspected Taliban positions in the Korangal Valley. Not a single one of these sterling characters has ever knowingly slain a toddler. But guess what: the toll of children killed by the 9/11 hijackers is negligible measured against the number exterminated or maimed by our brave technocrats during the past ten years, deaths that have sown dragons' seeds of bitter foes. Can anyone really imagine that, just because our side kills infants wholesale without actually seeing them first, we are somehow rendered more virtuous than the monsters who might have glimpsed the darling little visages of our wee bairn? Cripes.

Asymmetrical warfare always looks unfair to the side that has the cruise missiles.

This has long been a sore point with me, how the good old U S of A imagines that it can kill any number of children and noncombatants without any moral obloquy attending these murders because, of course, they’re merely collateral damage and not intended, and accordingly a hundred brown children killed by a cruise missile count as nothing beside the truncated life of an American infant vaporized by a bestial hijacker, which crime by contrast cries to heaven. Give me a fucking break.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rocky the Dying Squirrel

He has known sin at last, my gentle dog. Ravi has slain his first squirrel.

I had him at the corner park on Wednesday, and a squirrel that had been taunting him from relatively safe perches went scampering now and again dangerously close to the jaws of a dog who was feeling some rather primal impulses. At a certain point the creature scrambled up the trunk of a tall palm tree from the base of which Ravi has vainly attempted times past to reach scores of squirrels securely chattering indignation and abuse anywhere from six to thirty feet beyond his reach. He runs round and round the tree, frantic with bloodlust, and the squirrels dart down the trunk until they’re nearly within reach and then streak skyward to the fronds.

Late that afternoon, alas, the creature made an ill-judged attempt to quit the palm for another tree, and the moment the poor beastie hit the ground Ravi was on it like stupid on Sarah Palin, seizing it between his formidable jaws.

“NO!” I yelled, using my best Zeus-on-his-throne (and really pissed off) voice, and for a wonder this actually overrode about fifty million years of Canoidea evolution, the thin overlay of reflexive obedience imposed by just a few thousand years of Canis lupus familiaris genetics combining with the social conditioning to which our domestic dogs are subject sufficing to cause him to drop the doomed rodent from his mighty mandibles. The squirrel was stunned, no longer in a taunting mood, and Ravi, only momentarily ensorcelled by His Master’s Voice, lunged agin. “NO!!” I repeated, adding anabolic steroids, crystal meth, a Peet’s double espresso, 20 CCs of pharmaceutical epinephrine and a fifteen-hundred watt amplifier channeled through vintage “Voice of the Theatre” monitors the size of steamer trunks to the mix. He hesitated for long enough for the squirrel to scramble up the tree, where it was met, at about the 18-foot mark, by another squirrel that assaulted it cruelly and knocked it to the ground, a long fall. The poor creature was even more dazed this time, and Ravi, by this time berserk with bloodlust, lunged forward for the kill. I fear that even Master’s moral suasion, however loudly conveyed, might have fallen short of its desired effect at this point, and so had recourse to grimly seizing his sturdy collar, planting my heels in the sod and growling “This far and no farther” as my dog gave crazed way to the murderous impulses of his ancestors. The squirrel once more escaped to safer altitudes and was this time not assaulted by its fellow.

Alas, yesterday evening we returned to the scene of the crime to find a squirrel corpse lying by the base of the palm. I suspect that the first encounter, from which I thought my roared reprimand to have spared the creature’s life, may have proved fatal, possibly by means of internal injuries or bleeding, after all, although I'd prefer to imagine that it was the entire sum of its traumas, including the long fall administered by its fellow, that did it in. I regret the whole episode, while acknowledging that had Ravi killed a rat instead (we’ve had rat issues here in the Crumbling Manse now and again, and are notably unsentimental on the subject) I would likely have shrugged it off.

R seemed disappointed and puzzled all the way home on Wednesday that I had thwarted him just when victory and vermin were a crushing bite and a vigorous neck-snapping shake away. I stopped at the Food Hole en route and purchased him a quarter-pound of beef stir-fry which, stuffed into a “Kong,” went a long way toward distracting him from those fruitless speculations.

As it should be. They ask for so little.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Once more with beehives

I reprint “Frances Among the Beehives: A Birthday Ode, 1980” to mark the birthday of my dearest friend. She lived, in those days, in Utah, a “black hat” among the “saints”:

Frances Fisher, drinking gin
and tonic as the Saints march in,
Waverly Fisher, whom Random knew when
Has turned twenty-nine. Rand starts over again,
Smites his forehead, pours a cup
Of Folgers hi-test, sobers up
Within another cup or two, or
(Muse invoked) another few,
Conveys from land of sin and surf
His greetings to Moroni’s turf,
Hopes Provo is pleasant, knows Mormons are not
All that bad save en masse
(but it’s en masse you’ve got—
Utah being the homeland of Wog and of Polly,
Salt Lake, Brigham Young and the Osmonds, by golly!).
This doggerel is pretty poor
Imitation Clement Moore
Which is, however, no excuse
Not to play it fast and loose
On Frances Fisher’s natal day.
Sin! Debauch! And by the way
Do not let Sainthood take its toll
On Franny’s hedonistic soul.
In Rome we do as Romans do
But are, in Zion, careful to
Stay decadent. Remain alert!
Party, drink, and don’t convert.
Cheek by jowl with Latter-Dates
Black hats discreetly congregate,
and slipping from the pious’ sight
Go Gentile into that good night.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Karma’s a bitch, is it not?

A US Chinook helicopter transport was shot down in Afghanistan a few days ago with the loss of thirty US military personnel and seven Afghans. Much has been made of this, and in particular a poignant plea on behalf of his dead father from Braydon Nichols, a Kansas City ten year-old, has been widely circulated on the internet.

It is difficult to remain unmoved reading or viewing these accounts. I can’t. My own father, who will turn ninety next month, is a US Marine veteran of the South Pacific war. He fought on Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, and came literally within an inch of losing his life while storming the beach at Guam eight years before I was born. Had he died in action, I would obviously not have an opinion on the subject. Had he died when I was ten, I would have been crazed with sorrow. I do not intend anything that follows to suggest that I deprecate Braydon Nichols’ grief.

May we step away, however, from Kansas City and 2011, to a hypothetical grieving family half a world away and a quarter of a century ago? As Braydon Nichols is bereaved today, so must Vitaly Chernakov have grieved in 1986 when he learned that the Soviet “Hind” helicopter transport his father piloted had been downed with the loss of all hands by Islamic fundamentalist insurgents armed by the United States. The Chernakovs would have been assured by Russian military representatives, as the Nichols have been by ours, that the husband/father died for a good cause. Both families, I daresay, took as much comfort from these bromides as grieving survivors generally do.

As we wail and rend our garments over the Chinook downing, though, is it altogether inappropriate to note in passing that very few Americans could be found to weep over the deaths of hundreds of Soviets lost in helicopter transports downed by means of armaments thoughtfully provided to the heroic Afghan resistance by Our Tax Dollars at Work? On the contrary, every report of an episode like this was greeted on these shores with lusty huzzahs (heroic freedom fighters smite wicked foreign invader!) and nary a tear for the children and widows of the Russian troops.

And yet, and yet. What were the beastly Russians doing there? Spreading their filthy socialistic doctrines into helpless Afghanistan as the next step in their ruthless plan of world domination. What did the Soviet soldiers imagine they were doing there? Fighting bands of savage seventh-century fanatics consumed with a primitive and inhumane vision of Islamic fundamentalism. What did the Afghan resistance think it was doing? Driving out foreign invaders.

And what are we doing there today? Fuck if I know. What do we imagine we're doing? Fighting bands of savage seventh-century fanatics consumed with a primitive and inhumane vision of Islamic fundamentalism. What does the Afghan resistance think it is doing? Driving out foreign invaders.

Frankly, I think we owe the Russians an apology. We could start by respecting their example and quitting the “graveyard of empires” sooner rather than later. Throughout the entire 1980s every Soviet soldier or airman who died by force of arms provided to these same fundamentalist loonies was lustily cheered by the entire American consensus as a blow for freedom. You’ll look in vain in the reporting of the time for anything like the weeping and wailing this Chinook crash has entailed. If we want to express compassion for 10 year-old Braydon, this might be a good time to regret that out of sheer jingoism we were absolutely indifferent to 10 year-old Vitaly when his helicopter pilot father was killed by an American-supplied Stinger missile in 1986. In a world less ignoble than this one, we as a nation might be capable, looking back on our role in that stage of the conflict and comparing it to the present day, of feeling a twinge of…shame? Remorse? But no, that will never happen. We Americans are a simple, generous, impulsive, forgetful, heavily armed people. And the morning and the evening were the eleventh hour.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

I’m sorry, Dave...

but your services are no longer required by this mission.

The New York Times reports that the complex analyses formerly undertaken by cohorts of high-priced attorneys and legions of clerks and paralegals can now be assigned in large part to computer software. This suggests to me that Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity,” in the unlikely event it occurs as he envisions it, will have been preceded for some years by mass layoffs among the cognitive classes, who will doubtless be disappointed to learn that only our oligarchs will have the medical means and longevity to be transmuted into silicon.

Machine intelligence, and in particular machine “understanding” of human language, appears to have just lit up its afterburners during the past few years. I've long considered the “Turing Test” to have been a faulty threshold for assessing electronic sentience, and even if it weren’t, you can bet that the first time a galaxy of algorithms persuasively holds up its end of an informal and discursive conversation, the goalposts will be moved out to the parking lot. By decade’s end, though, we’re going to share the economy with a complex agglomeration of automated subroutines that will certainly appear to be sentient (should the actual condition be attained, the fact of it will likely be recognized only some time after it occurs), and this development will be, to say the least, fraught. What a shame it is to think that such fabulous power and potential will be wielded in the service of ever-more pitiless efficiencies on behalf of late-stage capitalism, the present-day inhumanity of which scarcely stands in need of such literal augmentation...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nunc dimmitis

God, he had the softest ears. Like velvet.

He is gone, Napalm the Wonder Dog, done to death on Friday night by the injection of a lethal drug directly into his heart. He was eighteen years old, give or take a month, and his health had been dicey since the beginning of 2009. Left behind are grieving owners, a score of concerned friends, and three thoroughly mystified and troubled canine pals: Ebony and Connie, of Oakland’s fashionable Rockridge district, and housemate Ravi, who watched his chum being trundled away in a plastic container, chief among these.

Napalm had gradually become so frail during his last eighteen months that one strained to remember what an energetic and adventurous creature he was for most of his life. He adopted Lina back when she was a freshly-minted J.D. by the simple expedient of homesteading the porch of her Glendale bungalow. Investigation revealed that he’d earlier been taken up (and then subject to parental veto) by a latino child in the neighborhood who had christened the dog “Negro.” A highly abbreviated field test suggested that there were very real practical obstacles to the use of this name as a means of summoning the dog in any given public space, and so Lina settled upon “Napalm” as sharing with the Spanish name the initial consonant, stress, vowel sound and two-syllable structure. Also, his frisky digging and pissing in her garden brought to mind the effects of American chemical warfare on Vietnamese foliage, and “Napalm” and “Agent Orange” were often associated with that particular salient of America’s ongoing struggle to make Asia safe for its imperial hegemony.

Napalm was about thirty months old when I first made his acquaintance, and had probably passed his third birthday when he and Lina and I formed a household at the unlamented “Locksley Hovel” in April 1996. He was young and frisky. He regarded me at first with polite suspicion, but shortly came to acknowledge me as vice-president of the pack when Lina was present (chopped liver when she was not).

A few things I remember about him: He loved Lina’s games, in particular “Chewy Shoes” and “Monster Dog.” In “Chewy Shoes” Lina would extend her legs and clap her shod feet together, and Napalm would growl dramatically and pretend to bite the shoes—always play bites. “Monster Dog” involved her shouting "You’re a monster dog!” and running at him, whereupon, on the present premises, the two of them would chase one another around the central axis of the house, with the polarities of pursuer and pursued spontaneously and unexpectedly transposing. A splendid and breathless time was had by all.

He had a dog’s love of ritual and routine, and deep dogly suspicion of deviations from routine. In the latter 1990s we took him to the Yuba River, and he did not approve of our splashing around in the swimming hole, no, not even a little bit. At one point he ventured onto a flat but sloping riverside rock to bark his disapproval. The rock was slick with algae, and he fell into the water. There was a moment of sheer evident panic before he realized that...he could swim, whereupon panic morphed instantly into pride: I'm a swimming dog! From that moment forward, and for almost the rest of his life, if there was standing or running water available he would eagerly venture into it. Some years back, when he was still sufficiently vigorous to accompany us on mountain biking trips to Moab and environs—he could still run for miles eight years ago, given sufficient hydration and a rational schedule of rest stops in the shade—we purchased a doggie life vest for him (required by some federal agency or another as a condition of taking him to the river), and he appreciated this augmented buoyancy in later years.

In his prime he loved to run, and would play “body slam” with the other dogs at Point Isabel, the glorious off-leash dog park in nearby Richmond. In late middle age, before the onset of the gradually accumulating infirmities that finally did him in, he left off such rough trade, but was still good for a romp and a growl with his circle of doggie friends. I should mention that two of these, Hector (“Hector the Corrector”) and Quino, predeceased him, Hector a decade ago and Quino unexpectedly just last year.

Lina reminds me that back when he could still tolerate Milk Bones™, we would sometimes leave him one of these as a consolation prize if we had to venture out of the house without him. He would sit in the vestibule holding the treat between his paws, and there he would be two or three hours later upon our return, with the MB still held before him, visibly licked over but otherwise intact, and only then would he gratefully commence gnawing upon it.

One of the first symptoms of Napalm’s decline was a case of "idiopathic canine vestibular disorder,” which is vetspeak for “your elderly dog is very dizzy and we don’t know what causes this, but it will get better soon.” He was pretty good for a year after that, and then a collection of ailments and debilities began to snowball until we finally concluded on Thursday night—he could no longer rise to his feet unassisted, and cried throughout the night as he soiled himself repeatedly—that the dog wasn’t having fun anymore. Nor were we by that time, and we agonized as to whether we were projecting our comfort and convenience onto his fate.

In the event, we summoned Doctor Dogvorkian, who came to the premises last night to usher Napalm out of his pain. N had a last afternoon walk on the grassy premises of the middle school across the street, and savored the unspeakable smells that dogs so enjoy. I fed him a couple of “Happy Hips” chicken jerky strips, a favorite treat times past that his dodgy digestion had not reliably tolerated these latter years, and he seemed delighted at the old vivid taste. Dr. D then administered a sedative via needle to the thigh—Napalm growled softly, but Napalm always growled at shots—and then slowly faded out of doggie consciousness as Lina cradled his head in her lap. After ten minutes Dr. D injected the endgame into Napalm’s heart. N’s breathing, which up until this point had been almost unnoticeable, became audibly labored for one...two...three cycles

and ceased.

I had thought myself prepared for this. I was not. The grief was sharp, overwhelming. Farewell, you poor old creature.

Ravi was not there for the end, but was on hand for the transfer of Napalm’s body from his pillow into a plastic crate for transport off the premises. He appeared subdued this morning.

Top: Napalm in happier days at Navajo Lake, Utah, in 2000. Elevation was 10K feet, and he handled it much better than did his owners. Below that: Napalm near the end of his long life.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Another damn dog post

A change, at least, from mooning over the Lost Girls. Here once again is Ravi, among the five or six of the World’s Best Dogs, at the rather grim “Hardy Dog Park” in Oakland’s fashionable Rockridge district. A passerby snapped him there a couple of Sundays ago, and kindly forwarded the digital image. Canines are on the mind because I have lately read of this appalling slaughter of sled dogs in Canada, which has set me to reflecting on the long partnership between our two great species.

Humanity and Canis lupus familiaris came to an arrangement a long time ago, the terms of which are heavily weighted in favor of the primate party. The more time I spend around dogs, the more impressed I am that they consent to the partnership. If the other animals with whom we share this planet could be raised to a level of abstraction that would permit them to grasp the concept of “evil,” and to assign a form factor thereunto, humans would embody that satanic slot. And yet, dogs, those ever-hopeful collaborators, like us. We would be a much lonelier species without them.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


National Geographic discovered this one (on the right) at some point during the past few years. The resemblance to a lost one is...spooky.