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.

Guns and Democracy

This is a post that first appeared in my Tumblr blog, and on Facebook. I’m reposting it here in hopes of reaching a wider audience–and because, sadly, its relevance has not diminished.

Did you know that Canadians who wish to possess or acquire firearms must have a valid possession-acquisition, or possession-only, license? It’s true. What’s more, to be eligible for a license, all applicants must successfully complete the Canadian Firearms Safety Course for a non-restricted license, and the Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course for a restricted license; the non-restricted class is a prerequisite to the restricted license. Each province/territory’s chief firearms officer publishes information on the locations and availability of these courses.

Licenses are typically valid for five years and must be renewed prior to expiration. Once licensed, an individual can apply for a firearm transfer, and an authorization to transport for restricted firearms. People may hunt with firearms in Canada only with non-restricted firearms, and this requires an additional “Hunting with Firearms” course.

For the most part, high-capacity magazines are illegal. There are further laws detailing how private firearms must be stored and transported. Certain kinds of ammunition are illegal. Devices that make semiautomatic weapons fully automatic are illegal.

Having effectively disarmed its citizenry, Canada has become a totalitarian dictatorship that does not respect the freedom of its citizens to express their opinions or peacefully change their leadership. Oh wait, that’s not true. What I meant to say is that Canada is a vibrant democracy that successfully integrates immigrants into its society at a per capita rate three times that of the United States, has two official languages, wrestles with a separatist movement in Quebec entirely peacefully, and experiences almost no mass shootings. There was one “mass” shooting in 2017; it claimed six lives. There was one in 2016; four people died. Going back several more years yields similar statistics. (Fun fact: the worst mass killing in Canadian history was the Lachine Massacre, in which 72 people died—in 1689. It was an anti-immigrant riot of a sort, which is to say the Mohawk attacked a French settlement. Another example of the danger of nativist politics, I suppose.)

Australia is a similar cautionary tale in the matter of gun control. There, a person who possesses or uses a firearm must have a firearm license. License holders must demonstrate a “genuine reason”—which does not include self-defense—for holding a firearm license and must not be a “prohibited person” (such as anyone having a mental illness that makes ownership of a firearm a hazard). All firearms in must be registered. Safety courses are mandatory for gun owners. Storage requirements and inspections are imposed. Certain types of semiautomatic weapons and other devices are banned entirely. Sales of guns and ammunition are restricted.

Australia’s current gun control regime is largely traceable to mass shootings between 1984 and 1996. The most notorious of these was the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996, in which a gunman armed with two semiautomatic rifles killed 35 people. Public opinion was galvanized. Because the Australian constitution does not give the federal government the power to regulate guns, gun control was accomplished by the enactment of national agreements brokered by the federal government and implemented and enforced by the states. Importation of guns is regulated by the federal government.

As a result of these measures, the most recent relevant report of the Australian Institute of Criminology states that the “number of victims of firearm-perpetrated homicide (i.e. murder and manslaughter) has declined by half between 1989–90 and 2009–10 from 24 to 12 percent.” On the other hand, the difficulty of obtaining firearms made it easy for the Chinese Army, and its fifth-column collaborators of armed wallabies, to overthrow the Australian government last year. Oh wait, that didn’t happen. What I meant to say is that Australia is a fully functioning, multi-party, federal republic. Freedom of assembly and association is respected, the judiciary is independent, and workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively.

Do I really need to go on? Guns are tightly controlled in England, France, Germany, and almost every other western democracy. Somehow, freedom survives.

We all know that gun violence in the United States is off the charts compared to its democratic allies. Here, 27 people die from gun violence for every day of the year. If you adjusted the populations of Canada and Australia, the examples cited above, to make them equivalent to the United States, their rates would still be fewer than 5 deaths for every day of the year. The Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 killed 130 people, which is nearly as many as die from gun homicides in all of France in a typical year. But even if France had a mass shooting as deadly as the Paris attacks every month, its annual rate of gun homicide death would be lower than that in the United States.

Nevertheless, gun advocates claim that the seemingly endless appetite of Americans for firearms is all that stands between us and the loss of our liberties to a tyrannical government. The problem is that to reach that conclusion, you have to ignore all of the available evidence. The experience of every other democracy shows that being armed to the teeth against the supposed predation of your neighbor is not a pre-requisite to freedom. (In fact, the opposite is more likely true. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel freer to speak and live as I please if I didn’t think that my neighbor’s disapproval might result in my death.) Although . . .

. . . I suppose you could distinguish the United States from other democracies. If you believe that Americans are less attached to their liberties than, say, Belgians, or that the roots of American democracy are shallower than those in, say, Italy, or that American political institutions are weaker than those in, say, Luxembourg, or that Americans are more likely to become attached to authoritarian leaders than, say, Germans, then you can plausibly make the case that Americans need to be armed against the possibility of tyranny because their democracy is more fragile than that of other countries.

Do you believe that?

California Dreamin’

Chutzpah, goes the old saying, may be defined by the example of the young man who murders his parents and then begs the court for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan. Today, Republicans are redefining chutzpah by referring to their defense of Brett Kavanaugh as their “Atticus Finch moment.” Senator Tom Cornyn of Texas said this on the Senate floor today:

Some commentators have called this our Atticus Finch moment, recalling the famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. We all remember that Atticus Finch was a lawyer who did not believe that a mere accusation was synonymous with guilt. He represented an unpopular person who many people presumed was guilty of a heinous crime because of his race and his race alone. We could learn from Atticus Finch now, during this time when there has been such a vicious and unrelenting attack on the integrity and good name of this nominee.

Sigh. Where to start?

We could start by noting the irony of this statement coming from the representative of a state that, in Atticus Finch’s time, would have been more likely to lynch him than to applaud his courage. We could point out that Finch defended his client by conducting a thorough investigation of the allegations of wrongdoing against him—not by first denying, then limiting, an investigation into such allegations, as Republicans have done. We could expound upon the fact that Atticus Finch began with an open mind and followed the facts to a logical conclusion—rather than beginning from a conclusion and disregarding evidence to the contrary, as Republicans have done. And we could note the audacity—the chutzpah—of self-congratulatory comparisons between a fighter for the powerless and despised and defenders of the powerful and privileged.

But let’s not. You either see all that, and are sickened by the chutzpah, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’ve already stopped reading.

Instead, let’s just take a moment to ponder whether this is really Republicans’ “Atticus Finch moment”—or whether it’s more likely to be their California catastrophe.

It’s hard to remember now, but once upon a time California was a purple state. We gave the nation Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, after all. From the 1960’s onward, the line of governors went like this: Pat Brown (D), Reagan (R), Jerry Brown (D), George Deukmejian (R), Pete Wilson (R), Gray Davis (D), Arnold Schwarzenegger (R, sort of), Jerry Brown (D). That’s a pretty mixed bag. But now California is solidly blue. Every statewide elected official is a Democrat, and that’s been true for a while. Republicans now have such trouble fielding credible statewide candidates that their best bets are self-funded nonpoliticians such as Schwarzenegger, Meg Whitman, and Carly Fiorina.

What happened?

Proposition 187 happened.

(Trigger warning: lawyer humor.) The proposition was appropriately numbered. It killed the state Republican Party.

(California Penal Code section 187 describes the crime of, and punishment for, murder. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Proposition 187 was a 1994 ballot initiative to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit illegal immigrants from using non-emergency health care, public education, and other state services. Voters passed it into law. It was challenged in court and found unconstitutional by a federal district court. Nevertheless, conservatives were thrilled by its passage. It meant that the conservative view of illegal immigration represented the majority of voters, right? Republicans would henceforth be able to win at the polls by being tough on immigration and by sponsoring ballot measures designed to divide Democrats on the issue, right?

They certainly thought so. Flushed with victory, Republicans sponsored two more anti-immigrant ballot measures: Proposition 209 in 1996, which ended affirmative action at governmental institutions, and Proposition 227 in 1998, which sharply curtailed bilingual education in public schools. Both measures passed. Conservatism was ascendant in California, right?

Wrong. Numerous studies have shown that the long-term effect of these racially divisive propositions has been to shift Latino support away from the Republican Party and toward the Democratic Party. As California has become more Latino, it has also become more Democratic. For the sake of short-term victory, the Republican Party sacrificed long-term viability, to the point that it has become almost irrelevant in statewide politics.

The moral of the story is pretty simple: If you act as if you don’t give a rat’s butt about people, you don’t get to complain when they believe you. Tell them enough times that they don’t matter, and they’ll vote for people who tell them they do.

Women understand what’s happening with the Kavanaugh hearings. They’re not fooled. They understand that Kavanaugh’s conduct toward women in his youth, and even more so his view of that conduct now, is an important issue. But they are even more keenly aware that Senate Republicans believe it is not important, regardless of the truth or falsity of the allegations against him. Women understand that, while Republicans may say they don’t believe Christine Blasey Ford and other women who have described misconduct by Kavanaugh, in reality they don’t care whether those claims are true. They didn’t want to investigate these claims because the outcome of an investigation didn’t matter to them. They didn’t call relevant witnesses to testify before the Judiciary Committee because they didn’t care what those witnesses might say. When Republicans were shamed into allowing an investigation, they limited its scope because the integrity of the investigation doesn’t matter to them. Women get this.

Tell women enough times that they don’t matter, and they’ll vote for . . . well, we’ll see. Women are not a monolithic voting bloc; they vote against their own interests as often as anyone else in this country. They’re no more intelligent or virtuous than men. But you can only show overt disdain for people so many times before they realize you’re not on their side. Denigrate them long enough, and they’ll find new friends. It happened with Latinos in California. It may yet happen nationwide with women.

So, friends, do not despair as Senate Republicans adopt the mantle of a fictitious civil-rights hero to justify their ill-treatment of women. While they talk about their “Atticus Finch moment,” the rest of us are California dreamin.’

Opening Salvo

It’s time to move my blog.  I started this thing a few months ago on Tumblr, but that’s proved to be a rather clunky format.  So I’m moving it here.  I’m retired now, and with that comes the time to bloviate about anything that spins my propeller.  I won’t write every day—heck, I’ve never even written on a regular basis.  Besides, who has something important to say every damn day?  I can’t promise I’ll always be interesting or entertaining, either.  But I’ll write, and I’ll either find an audience or I won’t.  I’ll write about the things that interest me—politics, running, porn stars who schtup Presidents, whatever.  We’ll see what happens.

But the name.  You want to know about the name.

Some years ago, my wife and I took the kids to Europe.  Our  excuse was that Sweden was celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Stockholm Olympics by running the Stockholm marathon along the original 1912 course.  I had a step-sister in Stockholm whom we had promised to visit one day, so I had to sign up.  

We toured Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.  In Copenhagen, we visited the Royal Museum, which had a timeline showing every Danish king since the time there was something that could recognizably be called Denmark.  The first three kings had the best names I’d ever seen.  The first was Gorm the Old.  I don’t know why that cracked me up so much.  Maybe it was because “Gorm” is a funny-sounding name, or maybe it’s because “the Old” is such a dubious sobriquet.  I mean, it doesn’t quite measure up to “the Lionhearted,” or even “the Terrible,” now does it?

The second king was Harald Bluetooth.  And sonofagun, that’s whom Bluetooth technology is named after.  Who knew?  Not I.  You have to wonder how he got that name.  Dental hygiene being what it was in the early Middle Ages, I’m guessing we don’t want to know.   

But the third king—ah, now there was a name.  Sweyn Forkbeard.  Never in the history of medieval Europe has there been a fiercer name than Sweyn Forkbeard.  What knight could fail to soil his chainmail knowing that he was heading into battle against a foe whose very facial hair could pierce his armor and send his immortal soul to Valhalla?  Fear the beard!  

Thus was born an alter ego.  Whenever I am feeling particularly cantankerous, or iconoclastic, or imperious, Sweyn Forkbeard emerges to slay the dragons of ignorance and unreason, bend the arc of the universe towards justice, and redeem the just and the righteous.  So now you know.  Welcome.