A Death in the Backlands

At some point in life, it occurs to you that personal preferences aside, you’re not really immortal. People close to you die. You might have a close call or two yourself. Sometimes you catch yourself thinking about dying, even on a sunny, beautiful day when, for you, death seems far, far away. On a couple of occasions, I’ve even given voice to this feeling out loud. Getting ready for a long bike ride in chancy weather that made me nervous, I remember saying to a couple other riders, “If something happens to me out there and I don’t make it back, I’ll have gone out doing something I love.”

I’m thinking about that because a Berkeley friend sent me a note yesterday about a widely known and loved Northern California cyclist died of an apparent heart attack last weekend during a ride up the northern slopes of Mount Hamilton.The rider was Tom Milton, and he happened to be just my age, 56; I did not happen to know him. He was in the middle of a 200-mile event called the Devil Mountain Double, one of the toughest rides in these parts. It’s obvious from accounts of riders who saw him on his bike that day or during any one of his previous rides, that he loved cycling.

I know the road he was riding. It combines the pain of a long, steep grind with exhilarating views over the ridges, canyons and valleys of a lonely backland. Condors would look at home there, and slow as the climb can be, the road gains altitude so quickly you have a sense of soaring. You can read about Tom here–an eyewitness account–or here–a series of tributes from fellow long-distance riders.

Is there a take-away? We’ll all have our own. Mine might be to embrace a little more readily the large and small joys that life affords us without worrying so much about what’s not perfect in a situation. I also agree with one of the commenters at those links, though, who suggests we all ought to know CPR.

Obituary Notebook

Obit in the news: Before I went to Chicago last week, Kate mentioned an obituary she'd heard or seen: Meinhardt Raabe, 94, the man who played the Munchkin coroner in "The Wizard of Oz." Kate being Kate, she dug out a three-year-old story she'd saved from The New York Times: "He Confirmed It, Yes He Did: The Wicked Witch Was Dead." Dan Barry wrote the article, which begins, " Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can’t get out of his head." It's a playful and poignant piece that reveals a remarkable life that would have otherwise gone unremarked. (One final link: The Times included an audio slideshow of Barry's visit with Raabe.)

Irish funnies: I recently became contentious with a family member who failed to instantly comprehend what I meant when I used the term "Irish funnies." What I meant was "newspaper obituaries." I assumed–in error, as usual–that the reference was transparent. The Irish relish misfortune and loss the way the less soulful might anticipate "The Katzenjammer Kids" (a strip that, shockingly, is still being produced). So when most people are turning to "Boondocks" or "Doonesbury" or "South Park" or whatever's on the comics page now (please tell me "Nancy" is gone; and "Cathy," too), a certain Hibernian-tinged demographic is flipping straight to the death notices. My sister Ann knows a retired Chicago Irish priest who occasionally reads the obits with a ruler at hand. "Look at that," he'll say when he spots an ostentatiously lengthy notice. "Six inches! Good for them!"

When I was in Chicago, Ann was going through the Irish funnies when she encountered a name she knew: John T. Fitzgerald, Jr. One of my mom's first cousins, whom everyone knew as Jack. He was the last of his generation of the South Side Hogan/Fitzgerald clan she came from. We weren't close, and I didn't know much about him. His obituary doesn't help much and reads like it was written by a stranger. It omits his age and the names of any family members. It says he had been "preceded in death by many brothers and sisters" (from what I heard growing up, he had two brothers and one sister). It described him as "a kind uncle to many." The only specific detail: he graduated from Leo High School, on Chicago's South Side, in 1936 and belonged to the alumni association. He was to be buried down at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on the far South Side. Plenty of other Fitzes and Hogans there (and O'Malleys and Morans, too, from the other side of Mom's family).

Come to think of it, I do remember a couple of things I heard about him and his life. Some of it's best left unsaid. Here's one remarkable particular I can relate, though: He worked well into his 80s as a helper and bus-person at an Italian restaurant somewhere on Chicago's Southwest Side. He was a small, slight guy, and I remember having an image of him lugging tomato-sauce-stained dishes. He didn't do it because he needed the money, from what I heard. He did it just to have something to do.

Announcement from Station Management

If you haven't noticed, this isn't the Grand Central Station of the Web (or Victoria Station, in either London or Bombay, or Tokyo Station; neither does it resemble the grand rail terminals of Paris, Barcelona, or Istanbul). Nevertheless, folks do show up here from time to time, and some even leave comments. Probably because of its out-of-the-way status, the site has only rarely drawn comment spammers. In the past, most of the spam comments that showed up were robotic and dumb–consisting, for instance, of a couple dozen identical links to a "Meet Former Hot Hot Soviet Ladies" site in Belarus. Those are easy to spot.

More recently, they've gotten sneakier and show up with more frequency, perhaps containing comments that you might be fooled into thinking for a second or two are related to the posts to which they're attached (though just as often the remarks seem to be crafted by slow-witted Third World telemarketers trying out freshly acquired English skills: "your blog brings a lot to work I'm doing now in the post
Univesidad I want to thank for that information which is provided here.
I also thank the people who contribute their comments on this blog.
great job").

In the past few days, notes have appeared from "House of Troy Piano Lamps," "generic propecia," and from "commenters" with sexually explicit names. It's a relatively minor nuisance, and I mark each and every one as spam and hope that the Typepad regulators can corral the offenders (not holding my breath for that). I'm also enabling comment moderation, meaning that I'll look at each comment before it's posted instead of trying to clean up after the fact).

That is all. We know you have the choice of other blogs, and we appreciated your continued patronage. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

Friday Night Light


We’ve ridden the ferry most Friday nights all winter long. We make those trips in the dark. Now the spring is pulling the daylight further and further into the evening, rolling the darkness back a minute or two every night. Right now, getting on the boat at 8 or so, we see a twilight show, with the harbor lit up in the dusk, but with the light going fast. The picture above? One of the stern running lights on the ferry; I was pointing my camera at it to trick the light sensor into giving me a faster shutter speed for something I wanted to shoot on the water (no–the camera is sort of broken and I can’t set the shutter speed manually). The light looked good in the viewfinder, so I shot it, too.

And it’s late–late Friday, early Saturday. I’m looking out at a world full of small kindnesses, and I try to take not one for granted, though I always do; and at a world full of deep loss, sadness, and hurt, far and near, that I can’t do nearly enough to ease. That light in the viewfinder–to some other eye, a light across the water of a deepening evening–strikes me as a comforting, maybe even hopeful, sign.

Changes of Venue

Flew to Chicago yesterday for a quick springtime check-in with the family. It was good flying weather, at least at 39,000 feet, and I was surprised on our descent across southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois how green it is already. The trees have already leafed out, and the forests are rolling canopies of translucent green.

At one point on the flight yesterday, I started thinking about the last time I was here, and the time before that, and the time before that–all the ping-ponging I’ve done on family visits, work trips, and other adventures. I’ve often thought about trying to remember and write down every airplane trip I’ve taken, just to get a sense of how often and how far I’ve gone. That thought came to me again on the flight yesterday while I was standing at the rear of the plane, stretching my legs. I thought I’d go back to my seat, pull out a notebook, and write down all those flights. I’d do it and have it done with. But when I went and sat down, I discovered I didn’t have a pen, and I went back to the book I’m reading.

Today, I started to try to list all the flights, 37 years’ worth, starting with the first time I flew, with my friends Gerry and Dan, on the beginning leg of our trip to Ireland. I still remember the exhilaration of leaving the runway and how the first banking turn felt like a roller-coaster ride; I actually whooped as we took off.

So that’s Flight Number One. And Flight Number Two was memorable because the airline we’d taken to Ireland, TWA, had gone on strike and we had to get back to Chicago on Aer Lingus a couple days before Christmas. Gerry and I (Dan had returned home earlier) were determined to surprise everyone at home, so we took trains from O’Hare to the south suburbs. Then we did what we’d been doing for a good three months: put on our backpacks and started walking the two or three miles to our homes. It was snowy and dark, and a half-mile before I got home, my brother John and his then-girlfriend drove past me on their way to the nearby drive-in theater. They rolled past, then stopped, then turned around and drove me to the house. That’s a whole other story.

Listing all the flights? You can see the problem already. Remembering one reveals a little thread of memory. When you tug on it, a whole skein of other memories follows. In the summer of 1982, a trip to Chicago involved a 17-inning Cubs game called because of darkness–that’s worth a whole chapter in the travelogue. In the summer of 1988, John and I wound up at the Antietam battlefield with my son Eamon and could barely tear ourselves away though I had a family engagement awaiting me in New Jersey.

And of course, when you start listing flights, you start remembering the trips that included an overland leg: like the time I started hitch-hiking from Chicago to Berkeley on the day after Christmas and somehow made it in just over 48 hours (no mystery: a guy headed to Oakland stopped for me near the Continental Divide in Grants, New Mexico and delivered me to the front door of my friends’ house).

I think the reason that list has never been undertaken before is that there’s no end to it once you start.

Sky Sunday, Sky Monday


The shot above is from the very top of Buena Vista Avenue in the Berkeley Hills (elevation 1,000 feet or so). When we got a break in the storm Sunday, The Dog and I walked up there from our place–two miles up, two miles back. (And it wasn’t much of a break, now that I look at this again–to the right you can see rain moving across the bay.) The street’s aptly named–the views all the way up are beautiful.

Then Monday, we took an after-work walk up to King Middle School. The clouds were still clearing out from the storm, but the rain was well over. One of the best parts of the winter and early spring here are the skies, which get somewhat more predictable as we move into the summer low-overcast season (although even then, we get freakish displays of the fog crowding into the bay and cascading over the ridges; still amazing to see).


Guest Observation: Edward Thomas

We went up to see our friends Larry and Ursula up in Fair Oaks on Saturday night and participate in their quarterly poem-reading evening. We read poems out of books, not our own poems. I brought nothing to read, but Larry has a whole shelf of poetry books, including several anthologies. I happened across a short poem in a collection of “modern” poets, a poem called “The Owl,” by an Englishman named Edward Thomas, and read it aloud. Here it is:

The Owl

Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;

Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof

Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest

Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,

Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.

All of the night was quite barred out except

An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,

No merry note, nor cause of merriment,

But one telling me plain what I escaped

And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,

Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice

Speaking for all who lay under the stars,

Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.

And for good measure, here’s Dylan Thomas reading “The Owl.”

Love Me, Love My Suitable Instrument


Posted on a newish condo-type building on Alabama Street, near 20th, in the Mission. What got my attention is that this looks like a custom-made sign. I’m taken by the stylized figure of the doberman-style dog and the crouching human (is that pose just art, or is it part of the health code).

Section 40 of the San Francisco Health Code, which the sign cites, is here. And also here:


(a) It shall be unlawful for any person owning or having control or custody of any dog to permit the animal to defecate upon the public property of this City or upon the private property of another unless the person immediately remove the feces and properly dispose of it; provided, however, that nothing herein contained authorizes such person to enter upon the private property of another without permission.

(b) It shall be unlawful for any person to walk a dog on public property of this City or upon the private property of another without carrying at all times a suitable container or other suitable instrument for the removal and disposal of dog feces.

(c) Visually handicapped persons who use Seeing Eye Guide Dogs are exempt from this law. (Amended by Ord. 420s78, App. 9/8/78)

What’s the penalty if you don’t pick up (or fail to carry “a suitable container”)?


… Any person violating the provisions of Sections 40,41.11(c) and 41.12(a) of this Article shall be deemed to be guilty of an infraction and upon conviction thereof shall be punished for the first offense by a fine not to exceed $10; for the second offense by a fine not to exceed $25; for a third and each additional offense by a fine not to exceed $50.

The requirements are pretty much the same under Berkeley’s Municipal Code (10.04.091): If you walk a dog, carry a “suitable instrument” for picking up dog leavings, and use it. The penalty is more expensive, though: $100 for a first offense, $200 for the second, $500 for the third.

All the dog-crap lawmaking has some effect: in Berkeley, most trash receptacles are full of “suitable instruments” (usually plastic newspaper bags) that are themselves full of dog waste. It’s still a little surprising to me how much people just leave, though.

16th Street, Out of Sequence


Shot Monday afternoon on 16th Street at Harrison in the fabulous environs of MiPo (Mission-Potrero). We had a day of winterish rain Sunday and showers early Monday. But by Monday evening the sky was scoured and the setting sun was brilliant. Today was bright, clear, and cool again. A warm-up is coming the next two or three days, but I’m not buying that the rain is gone for the season.

Ask Yourself

Somewhere in the household background this morning, while I was doing the crossword puzzle or making coffee, I heard NPR talking about a leaked U.S. military video of a 2007 incident in which American helicopter crews had killed a group of Iraqi men on a Baghdad street, including two journalists. Two children were also wounded.

The video was decrypted and released by Wikileaks in a 17-minute summary and full 39-minute version here: CollateralMurder.com. The videos are profoundly disturbing on many levels: the actual killing, of course; the eagerness bordering on glee of the crews on the radio; the apparent flimsiness of the evidence that the people on the street posed a threat and the exaggeration of the threat by the crews seeking permission to open fire; the discovery that children had been shot, and the contradiction between the urgency of the soldiers on the scene to get them treated immediately at a U.S. military facility and the deliberate command decision to hand the kids over to Iraqi police who would take them to "a local hospital." If you're inclined to believe, as I am, that this war has been brutal and wasteful and appalling from the outset and has been conducted with contempt for the native population, here's evidence that speaks to that. (On a more measured note, here's a discussion on a New Yorker blog that discusses some of the legal and ethical questions the incident raises.)

But perhaps all comes right if you're willing to face the truth of your mistakes. So watch the video. Then ask yourself: Does this account from the U.S. military, repeated widely by U.S. media, bear anything but a passing resemblance to what you've seen?