Justice Denied

Boy, I don’t know. Fourteen days for Felicity Huffman. I just don’t know.

Let’s be clear about what happened here: Huffman didn’t just cheat the system to get her daughter into a university for which she was not qualified. In so doing, Huffman took that university spot from another student—perhaps one who studied hard and earned his/her grades. Perhaps the student who didn’t get into U.S.C. because of Huffman’s fraud overcame adverse economic or family circumstances to put him- or herself in a position to succeed. That student’s opportunity now is gone forever. (S)he doesn’t now get to go to U.S.C. just because Huffman got caught.

A parent who is rich enough to pay tens of thousands of dollars to cheat the system is wealthy enough to provide her child with every educational advantage. Huffman had the resources to send her daughter to the best schools, provide private tutoring if needed, and ensure that her daughter didn’t have to work while in school. I can only marvel at the arrogance and sense of entitlement it must take to believe that none of this is enough; that is, that one is so deserving of elite status that lawbreaking is justified if the privileges of wealth are not sufficient to deliver it.

In a time of growing inequality, this sentence only reinforces the widely-held belief that we have a two-tiered system of justice: one for the rich, and another for the rest of us. That belief is deeply corrosive to our faith in government and society. It doesn’t matter that Huffman isn’t an habitual criminal or a congenitally bad actor. What she did strikes at the heart of our conception of America as a meritocracy. For that, she deserved at least several months of quiet time in very close quarters to reflect on her misdeeds.

Aid Station

The runner shuffled toward the aid station clutching her thighs. I jogged out to meet her. “What do you need?”

Her pacer replied, “We need to problem-solve. Her quads and glutes have seized up and aren’t working. We need to know what our options are.”

Other aid station volunteers rushed forward. They brought a camp chair—the runner cried out in pain as she folded herself into it—and piled bags of ice into her lap. To me her pacer repeated, “What are our options?”

“You can’t drop here, if that’s what you’re asking,” I said. “This station is too remote. You’ll be waiting here for hours. Your best bet is to keep moving to Cal-2 and see what they can do for you there.”

“How far is that?” asked the pacer.

“About five miles.”

Our station chief came forward. “Cal-2 isn’t much better. It’s pretty remote. If you want to drop, your best bet is to go back to Foresthill. The terrain’s pretty rough—you’ll be going uphill on the way back—but they can get you out easier there.”

The pacer’s face tightened. Going forward is always better. It keeps your options open. You might feel better. You might catch a second wind. Start walking back up the trail, and you’ve conceded defeat. Walk back several miles, and every step is pure humiliation. Every runner coming up the trail looks in your eyes and sees a quitter. The pacer wasn’t having it.

“How long can we stay here?” he asked.

“She’s in eleventh place. She can stay here quite a while and still finish strong.”

The pacer squatted and looked in his runner’s eyes. I thought about the rousing speech I would have given in his place. I would have said, “This is mile sixty-five. You are two-thirds of the way through this race. There is no tomorrow, no next week, no second chance. Today is the day. We will rest here a bit, and then we will keep moving down the trail. If we have to drop, we can do it at the next aid station. Or the one after that. But not here, not now. Not until there is absolutely no question that you cannot go on. Agreed?”

Her pacer didn’t say any of that. Instead, he said, softly, “We don’t want to quit, but you don’t want to walk the rest of the way. We’ll stay here a while. If you can run, we’ll go on. If not, we’ll call it. Okay?” The runner nodded mutely.

We fed her pickle juice and Saltines. Yeah, that’s a thing. I thought about the pacer’s manner with his runner—how he wasn’t interested in pushing her, how (I thought) he couldn’t tell that her frame of mind wasn’t right and that she’d probably quit if given the option whether or not she truly needed to. He didn’t seem to care about how she’d feel tomorrow if she dropped out now.

He knew something I didn’t. He knew his runner. She was a champion at 50 miles and a damned tough competitor at one hundred. She’d seen the inside of the pain cave many times, and had the mental toughness to come out the far side. She didn’t need some dominant man trying to make her into the best possible version of herself. All she needed to push herself onward was to be told it was perfectly alright to quit.

After twenty minutes in the camp chair, the runner gingerly stood up. The station crew applauded. She took a few wobbly steps, got a sponge bath from a volunteer at the far side of the station, and headed out with her pacer. When they disappeared around a bend in the trail, she was running.

Terms of Use

Finally, I am reading Leaves of Grass. I am not skimming it to find some pretty lines to recite for company. No, I am reading the full work because the twilight of the American experiment seems like a good time to pause and reflect upon the meaning and nobility of that experiment. One could just as easily read Condorcet, or the Federalist Papers, but Leaves of Grass better suits my present mood. If the philosophers of the Enlightenment were the brains of our crumbling project, Whitman was and is its heart. In the sadness of the present historical moment, I find myself more in need of solace than intellectual reinvigoration.

Yesterday, I came upon the poem, For You O Democracy:

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,

I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,

I will make divine magnetic lands,

With the love of comrades,

With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,

I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,

By the love of comrades,

By the manly love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!

For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

I read and re-read the poem. I thought: If only these words, and nothing more, were the terms of use of Facebook, and all social media. Imagine that you could not post opinions without asking yourself whether your writing promotes the indissolubility of your community, or its dissolution. Imagine that you required of yourself that your writings help make the human race the most splendid the sun ever shone upon. Imagine that before you hit “Post,” you had to explain—if only to yourself—how you intended to make divine with the love of comrades these magnetic lands. Imagine that these terms of use were enforced only by conscience, and that this was enough. Perhaps then we would stop cutting down the trees along the riverbanks in order to provide a clear line of sight for our weapons of mass dysfunction. Perhaps then we would throw our arms around each other’s necks, instead of each other’s throats. Perhaps, like Whitman, we could know ourselves as manly comrades and as ma femme, simultaneously and without contradiction.

It’s a pretty thought.

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, Again

In the 1950’s, as Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt degraded the nation’s political culture and terrorized the entertainment industry, a young writer made a breakthrough with his award-winning play, “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” He began to receive offers to write novels, screenplays, and television shows. But he frequently found himself being censored by sponsors who were loathe to back any work that might invite scrutiny from Washington. Eventually, Rod Serling realized that the only way he could say what he wanted to say was through the indirection and metaphor afforded by the genre of science fiction. Although some of the episodes of the show he created, The Twilight Zone, are pure sci-fi, many others are thinly-veiled political statements. Some are direct shots at Joe McCarthy.

In The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, the residents of Maple Street see a light in the sky that looks like a spaceship. They gather in the street to speculate about what they just saw. The more they talk, the more they reinforce each other’s fears. Someone raises the possibility that aliens have come to invade Earth. The power to the neighborhood fails inexplicably. One resident can’t start his car, then the car starts by itself. Terror overtakes the neighbors. Someone suggests that the aliens must have a spy who told them that Maple Street would be a good place to begin their invasion. In a flash, the neighbors turn on each other violently, and Maple Street descends into chaos.

It doesn’t end the way you’d think. The light really was a spaceship. Aliens really are planning to invade. They’ve been standing on a hill outside town, playing with the power and preying on people’s fear. This is how they will conquer Earth without firing a shot: they will turn the humans against each other and watch while we destroy ourselves.

Today, the monsters are returning. Not to Maple Street, but to our new virtual neighborhood: social media.

In 2020, I’m supporting Senator Amy Klobuchar for President. The reasons don’t matter for purposes of this post. The point is that as a supporter of Sen. Klobuchar, I get her Facebook posts in my feed. A few I read, most I glance at, some I ignore. Regardless of the subject matter, however, the comment threads are uniformly terrifying.

Today Sen. Klobuchar posted a story about a staffer of hers receiving a fellowship, and offering her congratulations. As you might expect, the comments section went right off the rails. One Jeff Ritzko responded, “Remember 9/11.” Huh? What does that have to do with the post? It gets much worse. Regina Massini said, “I SEE YOU’RE A LYING DEM-O-RAT WHOSE [sic] ON THE SIDE OF THE MUSLIMS[.]” The all-caps are all hers; everyone knows you’re more persuasive when you shout. The award for Most Deranged Comment of The Day, however, goes to one Mark Flesberg, who writes, “OMAR MARRIED HER BROTHER. AMY SUPPORTS HAMAS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. TODAY’S DEMS ARE A RADICAL BUNCH. #OBAMUNISM”

At this point, you’re probably reaching for the Tums. What the hell is wrong with this country that people think these things? How did their perspective become so distorted that they’re perfectly comfortable spouting lunatic ideas in public?

Put down the Tums. Breathe. It isn’t as bad as all that. Or maybe it’s worse.

Jeff Ritzko’s Facebook profile shows no activity since 2012. It’s been dormant for seven years. It has no pictures of him. It lists no family or personal information. The chances are very good that either the profile is fake, or it’s a dormant profile that has been hijacked by domestic or foreign trolls.

Regina Massini’s Facebook profile consists entirely of a cover photo and one picture of a document or web page from 2018. The profile lists no friends, no location information, and has no original content. Yet suddenly she’s active in political discussions on Facebook. The chances of her being a real person are low.

Mark Flesberg sounds like the neighbor you shoo your kids away from because you’re pretty sure he’s unhinged and you don’t know what he might do. Except that Mr. Flesberg probably isn’t your neighbor, because he probably isn’t real. His profile has no pictures of himself, and lists no friends. There is no identifiable personal information. The most recent activity is one picture in 2018 and one picture in 2016. And now he’s suddenly active in the threads of a politician whom he opposes? Doubtful.

But wait, you say: perhaps these people just have their privacy settings turned up to eleven. Well, I’ve seen real profiles like that. You can still see profile pictures that show the same person in different settings. You can still see activity. You can still see original content, not just reposted memes or forwarded stories from biased sources on the lunatic fringe. The profiles I’m flagging have none of the hallmarks of authenticity.

Think about it, folks: if you support a candidate, you might follow that candidate’s activities. You might comment on them from time to time. But starting arguments with people whom you will never convince of anything by making inflammatory comments on the threads of candidates whom you oppose is a total waste of time. Sane people don’t waste their time like that.

The point isn’t that the political right is nuts, because this isn’t a right-wing phenomenon. Quite the contrary. Russian trolls are on every side of every argument. Their purpose is not to convince you of any particular thing. Their purpose is to convince you only that they are your neighbor—and to make you angry. Their purpose is to drive a wedge between you and the people with whom you share your community, your city, your state, and your country. In this way will we become too divided to act purposefully as a nation. In this way will we destroy ourselves from within, just like the residents of Maple Street.

The measure of how effective these trolls are is that it takes extreme effort and supreme self-control not to be drawn into arguing with them. The argument is what they want. They feed on anger. Irrational argument turns political adversaries into enemies, and enemies fight to kill.

The United States has the strongest military on the planet, and it isn’t close. We are unconquerable from without. Any country that seeks to do us harm must weaken us from within. It must make us so distrustful of our leaders, our institutions and each other that we refuse to believe that existential threats are real. It must paralyze us into inaction by distracting us with internecine battles. Right now, the Russians are doing a pretty good job of that.

The enemies of this country are real. They do not live on your block. They do not vote for the party you don’t belong to. They are standing on their hills outside our borders, playing with our emotions and preying on our fear.

The Girl Scouts are Better Than the Rest of Us

A friend of mine brought to my attention today a story from 2015 about a $100,000 donation made to the Girl Scouts of Western Washington that the Scouts returned because the donor specified that the money was not to be used to support transgender girls. The Scouts ran an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to fill the hole in their budget left by the return of the donation, and quickly raised over twice that amount–over $250,000.

There are multiple ways to look at this story. You can applaud the courage of the Girl Scouts in returning a donation that had strings attached. You can take heart from the fact that they recouped the money—and then some—via donations from people who support their stand. These are good and valid reactions to what transpired here.

But in today’s world, what stays with me is the fact that someone was willing to spend $100,000 to ensure discrimination against a persecuted minority. Someone wants discrimination to not just be a matter of individual choice, but to be enshrined as policy in our social institutions. Someone thinks that denigrating trans people isn’t just acceptable, it’s important work—important enough to pay handsomely for.

Whoever offered this donation probably considers themselves faithful adherents to a religion that emphasizes generosity, charity, and service to their community. The only way to square their actions with these beliefs is to believe that trans people are not people at all, and therefore do not deserve generosity, or charity, or service.

I was raised as conventionally as can be. I grew up in a nuclear family and lived in a tract house in a suburb. My childhood was white stucco and Spanish tile as far as the eye can see. I probably don’t know trans issues from transistors. But I know right from wrong. And the people who conditioned their donation to the Girl Scouts upon the latter’s willingness to discriminate are as far from right as they can be.

Pacific Graft & Extortion

According to recent news reports, PG&E may seek bankruptcy protection to avoid liability for its negligence in causing the Camp Fire. To understand how nauseating this is, and what should be done about it, a little history and background is in order.

In 1997, PG&E was convicted of 739 misdemeanors for causing the Trauner fire in Nevada County that burned twelve homes and a schoolhouse. That number—739–isn’t a typo. The fire was caused by a tree limb brushing against a power line. PG&E is supposed keep trees trimmed near its lines—but instead, it diverted $77 million over seven years from its tree maintenance program in order to prop up profits for investors. So it was convicted of 739 crimes.

Did PG&E learn? Nah. In 2010, a PG&E gas pipeline in San Bruno exploded, killing eight people and injuring many more. Thirty five houses were destroyed; three more had to be torn down because of extensive damage. The cause of the explosion was determined to be a combination of excessive pressure in the pipeline, faulty welds, and poor maintenance practices. The State of California determined that PG&E had illegally diverted $100 million from a fund dedicated to safety operations, and had instead used the money for executive compensation and bonuses. As a result, PG&E was convicted of six felonies, paid a fine of $3 million, and was put on five years probation. The Public Utilities Commission fined the utility $1.6 billion.

But they learned that time, right? Nope. In 2015–just as their probation was ending—a wildfire swept through Amador and Calaveras Counties, burning 70,00 acres, killing two people, and destroying over 900 structures. Cal Fire determined that the cause of the fire was poor tree maintenance by PG&E that led to a tree falling on a power line near Jackson. PG&E paid an $8.3 million dollar fine, and estimated that its total losses for that fire, including payments to individual homeowners, exceeded $750 million.

That must be the end of it, right? You would think. But you would be wrong. Cal Fire, the state’s fire management agency, has so far reported that PG&E’s electric equipment started 12 fires in October 2017. The fires ultimately killed 18 people. The agency’s research indicated that the utility violated state law governing vegetation management in eight of those wildfires.

Now PG&E may have to declare bankruptcy to avoid its liability for the Camp Fire.

It’s pretty clear that PG&E doesn’t care whether you die because of its negligence. How can they get away with it again and again? Well, guess who’s paying PG&E’s fines and settlements? Ratepayers. You and me. They blow up our families and burn down our homes, and we pay the tab.

Executives aren’t hurt. The San Jose Mercury News reports, “In 2017, Geisha Williams, PG&E’s chief executive officer, was awarded $8.6 million in total direct compensation, according to a PG&E filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her 2017 pay package was 106 percent higher than the $4.2 million in total pay she received in 2016.” Got that? She got a 106% raise for presiding over a year of negligence that killed 18 people. Why should she care?

Also according to the Mercury News, Anthony Earley, PG&E’s former CEO and Williams’ predecessor, saw a gain of $15 million from the sale of stock according to the same SEC filing. Earley officially retired at the end of 2017. So he made $15 million for guiding his company into negligent homicide and possible bankruptcy.

These disasters keep happening because there are no consequences. When PG&E is fined or sued, ratepayers pay the bill. When the utility is convicted criminally, no one goes to prison. Executives are given bonuses that reflect complete indifference to their negligent homicides.

There are many smart people who believe that public utilities should never be public corporations precisely because it encourages companies to put shareholders and executives before ratepayers. I haven’t researched the issue in sufficient depth to know what the alternatives are, or whether they would be any better. But you don’t have to be a business or utility expert to know that people are predictable creatures. They react to carrots and sticks in predictable ways. Reward them for negligence, and they will be negligent. Insulate them from the consequences of their actions, and they will be indifferent to those consequences.

When utilities display a pattern and practice of negligence, as PG&E has, they need to be held accountable. They should not be allowed to raise rates to pay the costs of their negligence. Executives should not be rewarded with bonuses or stock options, or able to realize profits on the sale of options, when those executives have presided over catastrophic negligence—regardless of whether the company has been otherwise profitable. And if PG&E is allowed to discharge its obligations to the Camp Fire victims in bankruptcy court—and remember, “discharge” is legalese for “skip out on”—then all parties must understand that justice must still be done. Top executives, including Geisha Williams, need to go to prison.

If this sounds harsh, it shouldn’t. Under California law, involuntary (negligent) manslaughter is a felony carrying a prison term of two, three, or four years in state prison. If you think PG&E executives should be able to skip out on their obligation to compensate their victims and avoid prison for their deadly acts and omissions, tell me: Is that because the law shouldn’t apply to wealthy, successful people, or because the victims of the Camp Fire are unworthy of justice?

Game On

This is a special post for a special group of people. See, there’s this group at the Attorney General’s office that I used to run with, back when I was a contributing member of society instead of a deliriously happy social parasite. They kept me motivated, and they kept me honest. Really, I owe them big-time. So I just want to take this opportunity to say to each and every one of them:

Game on, suckers. You’re already behind.

Yeah, I know that I basically took last year off. After a studly 2016, I sorta kinda burned out on training. I raced very little. Then I retired and, what with adjusting to a new routine and all, my training fell off even more. But it’s a new year, and I’m stoked.

So we’re going to renew our friendly competition this year to see who can run the most race miles. Same rules as always. Time doesn’t matter; we’re only counting race miles. And the miles only count if you officially finish the race. Drop out at mile 25 of the marathon, and you get credit for zero miles. (Of course, if you drop down to a shorter distance on race day, you still get credit for those miles. You just have to officially finish the new distance.) Total race miles is what matters, so nine 5k’s is as good as a marathon. Ready? Good.

Because you’re already ten miles behind.

Auburn Resolution Run. January 1, 2019. Ten miles. (Actually, 10.14 by my watch; trail courses are less exact than road courses.) Time: 1:57:11. Pace: 11:33/mile. Yeah, I walked the hills. When the official results come out, they’ll reflect a distance of 10 miles, and probably be a second or two slower.

I’ll see if I can figure out how to create a Facebook group so we can post our race reports. If not (I’m a dinosaur, people), we’ll use email, or Pony Express, or smoke signals, or something.

Catch me if you can.

Go Ahead, Build the Wall

Donald Trump had a public spat with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi the other day about funding for his border wall. Trump threatened to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t fund construction of the wall.

I confess I do not understand.

In 2015, Donald Trump kicked off his campaign for President with a speech characterizing Mexicans as criminals and rapists. He promised to build a border wall to deter immigrants and—crucially—to make Mexico pay for it. It was an insane promise: why would Mexico pay for the wall? Why would that nation even entertain the notion of quarantining itself behind a wall as if it were diseased? What possible inducement could Trump offer that would convince Mexico to debase itself in such a manner? What persuasive power could he have left after disparaging Mexicans in openly racist terms?

Whatever. He made the promise. And he kept making it, again and again. According to the Washington Post, from the time he announced his candidacy to today Trump publicly repeated his promise that Mexico would pay for the wall approximately 190 times. That promise was the centerpiece of his campaign, the raisin d’etre for his candidacy. Supporters chanted, “Build the wall” at campaign rallies. (They also chanted, “Lock her up,” another lunatic commitment that Trump could not keep and has not pursued, but that’s a subject for another day.)

I do not understand why Congress needs to provide money for a border wall when the money is supposed to come from Mexico. Not being a political consultant type, I also do not understand why Democrats do not talk about this every damned day. It seems so, so easy to me. Democrats should stop talking about the virtues of immigration, although such virtues are real. They should stop talking about why the wall isn’t necessary, or wouldn’t be effective even if it were built, although both of those things are true. They should even stop talking about the racism at the heart of Trump’s views on immigration, although that racism is real, and evil. Instead, they should have one message, and that message should be hammered home every time the subject of immigration is raised: “A promise made should be a promise kept. We welcome the President’s commitment to build a wall on our southern border with money from Mexico. As soon as funding from Mexico is secured, Congress will act to remove any legal obstacles to construction of the wall that may exist.”

Of course, there is no chance that Congress would ever have to remove any such obstacles, because there is no chance that Mexico will ever write the check. Thus, the message underscores the absurdity of Trump’s promise. It forces him to defend himself on ground that is indefensible. It highlights, again and again, the unkept promise. Democrats can claim they are in complete agreement with the President on the evils of illegal immigration, the necessity of a southern border wall, and the need for Mexico to fund it. And then they can sit back and watch as Trump falls on his face, either by trying to engage with Mexico over funding, or by trying to explain why he didn’t mean what he said.

Trump already has given ample evidence that he intends to make a fool of himself on this issue. His latest claim is that Mexico is going to pay for the wall by giving the U.S. more favorable terms in the re-negotiation of NAFTA. That means, of course, that any money gained by virtue of those more favorable terms would be diverted from the American economy to build the wall. Which means Americans would pay for it. His argument is as silly as if he had said he would get the richest one percent of Americans to fund the wall, but that they could do it by docking your paycheck. That kind of pretzel logic doesn’t pass the smell test.

When your adversary promises to do the impossible, you don’t try to talk him out of it. You encourage him to give it a go, because his certain failure is the quickest way to discredit him and his ideas. And it doesn’t require you to do anything but watch.

On Forest Fires

In 1991, Clyde the Wonder Cat and I lived in a small in-law apartment in the basement of a house in the Oakland Hills. Single and just a few years into my career, I was beginning to acquire a cool stash of consumer goods—television, skis, Yamaha tenor sax—that constituted indicia of a comfortable, enjoyable life to come.

On the morning of October 21, my girlfriend and I drove to San Francisco to attend a birthday brunch for a friend. On the way back, we noticed a column of smoke in the East Bay. “Must be something on fire in the port,” I guessed. As we turned onto the Bay Bridge, we saw that the smoke was coming from the hills, not the port. “How close is that to our neighborhood?” Linda asked. (She owned a house a couple of miles from my apartment.) The closer we got, the more apparent it was that the smoke was indeed coming from our neighborhood.

We got to within two blocks of my apartment before being turned away by emergency personnel. Retreating to Linda’s house, we watched the news reports of what came to be known as the Oakland Hills fire. Eventually, we had to evacuate her house and flee with a carful of her possessions to her parents’ home in the Berkeley hills.

I won’t bore you with all the details. Linda’s house survived. My apartment did not. (Clyde the Wonder Cat lived through a feat of derring-do worthy of another writing.) Over 2,000 homes burned.

I lost everything. The fire was so intense that there was nothing left of the apartment but the foundation of the house above it. There was no sign that my large metal desk or big brass instrument had ever existed; they melted and trickled down the street. I had no clothing, no kitchen gear—not even a toothbrush. I was one of the lucky ones; I had a girlfriend who let me crash at her house. (Admittedly, that worked out well in the long run.) Worse, my mother had sold the family house several years before, and, lacking room in her new apartment to store memorabilia, had distributed almost every memento of my childhood to me and my brothers. Family pictures, Cub Scout and Little League paraphernalia, academic diplomas, and more—all of it was gone.

I learned some lessons from that fire. Not all of them were the right lessons. To my own surprise, I was not devastated by the loss of my apartment or possessions. It was all just stuff. Even the pictures and items of sentimental value were just stuff; I had my memories, and that was enough. The fire didn’t teach me to not get too attached to stuff; it simply showed me that I was already that way. Honestly, by the time of the fire I was already starting to miss the time, just a few years before, when I could move my apartment in a small number of produce boxes in the back of my hatchback. Possessions are nice, but they do not define me. I found Clyde a few days after the fire, and together we sponged off of Linda and her cat, Sporty, while we got back on our feet.

(Another lesson: if your girlfriend is really crazy about you and wants you to move in with her, do it before she burns down half the city just to make it happen. I can’t prove Linda was responsible, but I still have my suspicions.)

In the days following the fire, I watched news reporters thrust microphones and cameras at fire victims to record their tears at having lost their homes and possessions. I was judgmental. Fools, I thought. Everyone in your family is alive. The house was insured. The rest is just stuff. It isn’t worth crying about.

I still think that way, to a certain extent. I do think people are too invested in material possessions, and if my house burned down tomorrow, I’d be okay. Sure I’d be upset—come on, another melted saxophone?—but it’s still just stuff. Nevertheless, in the fullness of late middle age, my perspective has changed. I understand now how lucky I was when the worst happened to me. No one I knew died (although people did perish in the Oakland Hills fire); even my cat survived. I was single; I didn’t have to worry about how much school my kids were missing because school didn’t exist anymore. I was young and healthy; I didn’t have mobility or medication issues that made me dependent on outside resources that suddenly weren’t there. My girlfriend had a house; I wasn’t out on the street, scrambling to find shelter, or dependent on government largesse. Most important, the vast majority of my working life—and thus, my earning power—was still in front of me. Sentimental value aside, everything I lost could be replaced, eventually. It’s a lot easier to lose everything you have when you still have your future.

The median age in Paradise, California, is 50.2 years. A quarter of the population is 65 or older. Many of these folks are undoubtedly on fixed incomes. Many won’t ever be able to replace what they’ve lost. Some likely are facing a reduced standard of living for the rest of their lives. Some may be forced out of the area forever. And, of course, the death toll is still rising. As I write this sentence, a headline is flashing across my tablet that 631 people are missing, and 63 are dead.

I like to think that I could pack up and move tomorrow if I had to, and find the adventure in it. But even I recognize that there comes a point in life when it’s too damned hard to start over. I suppose we’d all like to think that our efforts to build a decent life earn us a certain amount of credit with Fate—that we’re safe, at some point, from the possibility of having the rug yanked out from under us and finding ourselves back at our beginnings. Recent events remind us that it isn’t so. We can lose it all, even our lives, at any time to a random exothermic chemical process of combustion. The only possession we ever get to keep is the one we give away; that is, the imprint we make on the lives of others. Go make one tomorrow.

A Dog’s Life

We had our dog killed today. That was about as much fun as you’d think. Sadie was old and infirm; it was time. Killing her sucked anyway.

I’m not one of those people who doesn’t know the difference between people and animals. I don’t think of pets as “fur babies;” in fact, I’m a little repelled by that term. To anthropomorphize an animal is to deny its true nature and, thus, to demean it. I don’t need to pretend that an animal is a human baby when I’ve raised two human babies. I’d rather give the animal the respect it deserves and see it for what it is.

But still. Killing your pet is hard.

It’s a strange thing to watch a dog get old. Perhaps because their life cycles are so much shorter than ours, the degenerative process happens quickly. A dog is mature for several years, and then it is a little less energetic, and then decrepitude sets in quickly. Her hindquarters don’t work so well anymore. She goes from bringing her leash to you for a walk to barely being able to get up to go pee in the yard. Cataracts develop, and the dog that used to bound through the neighborhood is bumping into table legs. She loses interest in food; you can feel her ribs when you pet her. And then all she wants to do is sleep, and you know the end is near.

It’s hard to know when it’s time. Vets can do almost as much for animals as they can for humans now, and if you want to spend the money you can keep your dog alive for a long, long time. For the last year or so, Linda and I have grimly joked that we wished Sadie would develop something really expensive and make this easier for us. Instead, it was one infection after the next as she became incontinent and slept in her urine. Every infection was treatable, but as soon as she fought off one she’d develop another, because she was still incontinent. So she was always in pain and always being administered meds, and what kind of life is that?

It’s unnatural to watch a dog become debilitated. In the wild, Sadie would have been eaten by something bigger before she became a medical case. That may sound harsh, but isn’t the vestigial wildness of dogs part of what we love about them? They may be many steps removed from wolves, but they always retain the spirit of the wolf in our imagination. Take them away from our suburban comforts, and even the tiniest chihuahua could become Buck, answering the Call of the Wild.

They’re different from cats in that respect. Don’t get me wrong; I grew up with cats, and my wife calls me the Cat Whisperer. I love ‘em. But there are cats who are mousers, and cats who want to be the lord of the manor, fed with a silver spoon while they lounge on the cushion no one else may use. By contrast, all dogs—even the tiniest teacup breeds—are energetic outdoorsmen and -women. (You can’t hike with a cat.) To see a dog become enfeebled is to watch it become a shadow of its former, real self. Nature had the good sense to not let that happen. But we sentimental humans are too reluctant to let go; we are content to deal in shadows and memory if it helps us avoid saying goodbye. So we nurse along our dogs until they are like the professional athlete who tarnishes his/her legacy by grasping for glory after the talent for it has dissipated. I wonder: if our dogs could talk, when would they say to us, “Please, let me go”?

Sadie was a frivolous little princess. She was an AKC-registered Papillon—a ridiculous breed to begin with. Regardless, she was descended from the first wolf that decided it was not afraid of the campfire; the first to venture close enough to men to be petted. So now I sit and mourn the loss of a wild thing that was not wild except in my imagination, but that retained and displayed the primal, survivalist instincts of familial affection and unquestioning loyalty to her adopted pack (us). If you’ll excuse me, I have to go howl my death-song at the moon.