Journal: Thursday, September 12

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My best friend Sebastian died this afternoon, snuggled up in my arms, whimpering and snuffling, trying to purr as I scratched the back of his neck. He had been suffering for several days from a very high fever that evolved into a rampaging anemia that turned his skin yellow and robbed his blood of the ability to transport enough oxygen to keep him alive, no matter how hard he struggled to breathe. He was frightened, and in pain, and he knew that, just like always, I was there to make it all better. Instead, I held him while the veterinarian injected him with a quick, silent poison that ended his life within seconds of my giving her my assent.

I know, intellectually, that death is a fact of life: I’ve outlived friends, said goodbye to family, and buried literally dozens of pets over the last fifty-five years. I know that we all die, and that a world in which we didn’t would be a grotesque and horrible place; I know that immortality could never by anything but a cancer, changing and deforming the very organisms it preserves.

Emotionally, however, every loss still hurts, burning with a different mix of denial, guilt, grief, anger, and loss. Emotionally, that elegant intellectual understanding of the proper sequence of birth and life and death and new birth smells like nothing more than a steaming bucket of excrement.

As human beings, we have always seen ourselves as perched atop the pinnacle of creation: second only to God; stewards of the Garden; the naked ape clinging to the very highest branches of the tree of life. For reasons too complex and too deeply-seated for me to ever articulate, it is important to me that the creatures in my care live without fear, without pain. I know perfectly well how artificial an environment that is: any living being in a natural state would not survive a day if he — or she, or it — did not know fear and pain, know them and understand them at a visceral level. Still, I feel the need to shelter my pets, to prove that I am greater than the arbitrary whims of nature. I defy entropy, thereby demonstrating that I am beyond it, above it, superior to it. If I were honest with myself, I would admit that what I’m doing is more about broadening and deepening my own sense of self-worth, my notion of my importance in the grand scheme of things, than about the animals, but if I were honest with myself, I wouldn’t be in this position in the first place, trying to drag the universe down these strange and difficult paths.

Sebastian depended on me, he depended on my omniscience and my super-natural authority to make his world a happy and secure one. He depended on me, and I failed him. The fact that success was not even remotely possible means nothing, at least for today: he knew that I would always make things right for him, he trusted me, and all I could do was end his life. I grieve for him, for the absence of him in my day to day life, but I’m also angry, outraged that the god-human image of myself that Sebastian and I created between us proved to be such a frail and useless fraud.

I did my best for Sebastian, or at least the best I believed I could do at the time. I know this. I really do. Eventually I will go beyond knowing and I will actually believe it, and the guilt and the anger will diminish, and the grief will mature, and only the loss will remain, the faint smell of smoke left after the fire burns itself out; and with time, even that will mellow, and I will remember Sebastian with pleasure and not with the gut-wrenching reminder that he is no longer in the next room, curled up in a chair, waiting for me.

But that’s tomorrow, or the day after. Not today; no, not today.

And you find yourself
In a great house with many windows open
Running from room to room, not knowing where to look out.
Because the pines will vanish, and the mirrored mountains
And the chirping of the birds.
The sea will empty, shattered glass, from North to South.
Your eyes will be emptied of the light of day
As suddenly, all at once, the cicadas will fall silent."

(Excerpted from “Thrush”, by George Seferis)


Come Fly with Me

Icebergs? Bah! We’re not afraid of any silly icebergs!

I know Mr Jung and Mr Freud tell us that we can learn things from our dreams. Well, last night I learned that zeppelin crews on the Rio to Lisbon route steal shoes from the passengers’ staterooms when they get bored. (Brawls have broken out over a pair of Spongebob flip-flops.)

I learned further that if you lose your wallet during the trip you are handed over to my friend Judith Levine for safe keeping — although her response is usually just to throw up her hands, cry “Whatever!”, and sail out in a flurry of crêpe de Chine. The trip takes three days.

It was quite a dream, even for me.

For centuries, people blamed spicy food for exotic or unusual dreams: in 1904, Winsor McCay began a comic strip for the New Evening Telegram called “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” in which the central characters’ bizarre dreams were caused by a late meal of “welsh rarebit“, a dish of toast with mustard-and-Worcestershire-seasoned cheese sauce. Giants romping through New York City, people experiencing their own funerals… It was a pretty kaleidoscopic experience, generally, and a lot to blame on a couple of pieces of cheese toast.

In 1905, Winsor McCay began the strip for which he is best known, “Little Nemo in Slumberland”, which, while certainly loopy, was a toned down considerably from its predecessor in order to appeal to a more general audience. He is also known for one of the earliest animated shorts, “Gertie the Dinosaur”, from 1914.

Little Nemo, romping through dreamland in his footie PJ’s.


My dinner last night centered around roasted brussels sprouts, a baked potato, and tuna steak, so I don’t think I can fall back on the welsh-rarebit defense.

Another highlight from last night’s extravaganza? I learned that my extensive study of Renaissance painting on biblical themes made me the only person on the zeppelin crew who could spell “Massacre of the Innocents” correctly for a sign we needed to create. (In their defence, many of the other crew members spoke primarily Portuguese, so perhaps there was a language issue.) I don’t recall that we were actually planning to massacre any innocents, but I have no memory as to the purpose for which the sign really was intended.

I’ve written about dreams in this blog before (last June, in “Dream a Little Dream“), but this morning I don’t think I’m quite up to a scholarly disquisition. I’m just giving you the particulars, and leaving you to draw your own conclusions.

The control room of this trans-Atlantic behemoth (it was an airborne cruise ship) looked a lot like a laundromat, as all of the zeppelin’s controls were housed in white boxes with knobs and dials, with the occasional large lever alongside — you know the kind, the one that sticks up three or four feet from the floor in spaceships from 1950’s science fiction movies, and never works when you need it to. Once over the ocean, there was little for the crew to do, so we spent much of our time devising ways to amuse ourselves, such as playing shuffleboard in the hallways and mixing up passengers’ laundry.

The “Infinite Monkey Theorem” of 1913-14 states that a monkey hammering away at a keyboard for an infinite length of time will, at some point, purely by accident, manage to place the right letters in the right sequence and recreate “Romeo and Juliet” in its entirety. I sometimes wonder if the human brain works in a similar way — if you tumble enough random bits and pieces around in there for long enough, perhaps it’s inevitable that you will one night produce a dream in which a zeppelin crewmember, while mopping the floor in an outside walkway, will stumble upon a Hello Kitty pocketbook filled with #8 finishing nails.

I should mention that I am prone to somewhat cinematic dreams, and I rather enjoy them. Like stumbling across a box in your mother’s attic, filled with artifacts of your childhood that you had forgotten existed, sometimes wild dreams help to stir up memory, and bring old knowledge into new focus, or throw everyday events into bizarre and unexpected juxtapositions, like the “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella” of the Comte de Lautréamont, in his Chants de Maldoror.

Did you know that the if no one pays any attention to the large molded-plastic warning signs that hang above the debarkation escalator, the lettering gradually melts back into the surface and fades away? Yep. It happens on the Rio to Lisbon zeppelin. I saw it.


The fine art of seeing.

As I do just about every week, I stopped off on the way home from work last Friday to check a couple of books out of the Fayetteville Public Library. I usually read quite a bit, and I try to keep the beast supplied with a plenitude of reasonably nutritious fare — otherwise I start browsing things like the back of my cereal box or the ingredients list on my Twinkies, and there are some things we really weren’t meant to know.

I don’t know what you’re going on about: I see Paul Krugman.

As I was settling in to dinner later that evening I picked up one of the books to enjoy during my meal — I know: a habit frowned upon in all the nicer homes, but an essential part of my digestive process. I fumbled the book briefly as I was sitting down, and a folded rectangle of paper fluttered out onto my chair.

Down one side of the paper was written, in a tiny handwriting like the footprints of bees, a list:

“Luxeuil; wandering Irish bishops & saints; Boniface of Grediton; Fulda; suburbicarian; the great anarchy; Chronicle of St. Gall by Elekchard IV; Lindisfarne.”

Upon opening the piece of paper, I found that it was a receipt of the kind that public libraries often provide these days, generated by their computerized inventory system. Oddly enough, the receipt was not from the library in whose book I found it, but from the University of Arkansas’ Mullin Library. There were three books listed on the receipt:

“Love in the Ruins: the Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World”, by Walker Percy; “Troilus and Criseyde” by Geoffrey Chaucer; “The Making of Europe: an Introduction to the History of European Unity”, by Christopher Dawson.

Of those three books, the only one I’ve read is the first, “Love in the Ruins”,  which I read about a month ago — taking it out of the Fayetteville library during the same week as this mysterious other person was borrowing a copy from the University.

No doubt you’re thinking: “What the hell is the point of all this?”  Guess what? There isn’t one! Yep, you’ve been had.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.


“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”


— From the Poem “Jabberwocky”, appearing in “Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice found there”, by Lewis Carroll

We are primates, underneath all the literature, and our history has left us blessed — or otherwise — with an amazing capacity to perceive patterns. We can look at a clump of shrubbery and spot the apple — or the snake — by the mere visual deviation of those objects from the general background of twigs and leaves. We see patterns, and we see things that interrupt those patterns. That perception kept our hungry ancestors from starving, and kept them out of the bellies of even hungrier predators.

For us, living in our modern world, these pattern recognition skills are still useful, but we’ve had to learn to analyze and interpret what our instinct picks out for us: we notice that one of the cars in the parking lot is moving relative to the others, so we don’t walk out in front of it; we see the fly in our soup, the typo in our term paper, the misplaced decimal in our income tax return, and we use our intelligence to decide how to interpret those things. At the same time, our animal awareness can cause us to force patterns that are not really there: faces in the clouds, writing on a seashell, the Virgin of Guadalupe on a grilled cheese sandwich. To be really useful all of this has to be filtered through the lifetimes of knowledge and insight that each of us has at his or her disposal, through education, through critical thinking, through personal experience.

There is an underlying logic to my mysterious list (“suburbicarian”? “the great anarchy”?) but I don’t know what it is. With a little study, I might come up with some reasonable guesses — I might be able to perceive a pattern — but I might just as likely end up trying to impose my own prejudices. Maybe it was a dyslexic’s grocery list. Maybe it was a secret communique from the Latverian Embassy to Doctor Doom’s covert agents in Northwest Arkansas.

And that, of course, is what art and poetry and almost any other human creative endeavor is all about. Read Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” and you’ll find yourself attaching images to the “borogoves” and the “slithy toves” even before Alice prevails upon Humpty Dumpty to explain what they are. Certainly every fortune teller since the days of Noah has understood that most human beings will create a narrative from the skimpiest fragments: A tall, dark stranger? What are the chances of running into one of those, purely by accident? Money changing hands? Rent’s due on Tuesday! How did she know?

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!’

– from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll

I love patterns that emerge from chaos, like a painting — which is, after all, nothing but dabs of paint on a flat surface — coalescing to show me a princess, or a steak dinner, or a racehorse, each with its own story, its own message, its own meanings to impart.  At the same time, I recognize that perceived patterns aren’t always real patterns, or that there may be legitimate patterns in a body of information, but not those that are immediately apparent. Economic statistics, election-year polling, charts and graphs of all kinds, they are all clouds or trees or oil-on-water rainbows. They can mean something, or nothing, or many things at once, depending on how you parse it out. As with a Monet painting of a haystack at at dawn or a parable from the Book of Matthew, we have to use both our instincts and our intellect to read the message.

I believe in the human role in global climate change; not because someone told me to, but because there is a vast body of data available today in which I can see certain patterns, informed by what I know personally and by the insights of people whose experience and expertise I trust. Other people may look at that same data and see cow farts, or volcanoes, or Elvis, or nothing at all. Within a generation or so, we’ll probably know whose interpretation was correct. On the other hand, I don’t think the alignment of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh and the wording of the Declaration of Independence are related through a common link to visiting aliens from Canopus.

But I could be wrong about climate change, and the Declaration could contain hidden instructions for how to build a warp drive, written in Canopian karbooble ink. We shall see.

We all observe — or very assiduously ignore — the stirring in the bushes, that’s part of our evolutionary birthright: what makes us human is our ability to think about it, to reason and analyze and decide for ourselves whether what’s in front of us is the apple or the snake.

Dream a Little Dream.

Last night I dreamt that my family was being studied by a world-famous psychiatrist (the doctor’s first name was Hannah, but that’s all I remember of her identity) and dozens of my relatives had been gathered together for the purpose, almost none of whom I recognized. Even my father — who died some years ago — showed up in a cheap brown suit and took a stroll through the crowd and then wandered back out the way he came, without saying a word to anyone.

Dada artist Hannah Hoch might have provided a model for Doctor Hannah, although I don’t personally recognize anyone in this image.

(Personally, I would have thought the job would have required more than a single psychiatric professional — we were always a bit more like the Simpsons than the Cleavers — but I suppose my dream-insurance didn’t cover that.)

In the middle of a room full of people there was a table covered with documents: books, letters, pictures, and so on; all the odds and ends that a family accumulates over time. One large photo album had pictures of my immediate family in a variety of situations — around the table, in front of the Christmas Tree, at a barbeque — all quite normal, except that the faces were from different photos, sometimes from different ages, cut out in little squares and glued on over the existing versions: the correct faces on each body, simply taken from the other pictures. When I started flipping through the album, Doctor Hannah come over and took it from me, informing me that these materials were only for the family.

When I pointed out that I was, in fact, a member of the family, she backed off — but reluctantly, clearly suspicious, not entirely convinced.

As is often the case with dreams, other things happened that seemed significant in the context of the dream, but confusing.  There were conversations, interactions, such as meeting a little boy who was both a distant cousin and a friend from my own childhood (apparently un-aged), and being rudely snubbed by an angry dark woman who looked like Maria Callas.

Toward the end of the dream, I found myself in conversation with the doctor, and she asked me if I was afraid of ghosts. I told her that I was not afraid, that ghosts were my friends. She then observed that this was perhaps because I was, myself, “the family ghost”.

I woke up about this time, but, needless to say, the dream stayed with me.

.  .  .

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — who, with Sigmund Freud, co-founded the subset of psychiatry they called psychoanalysis — believed that there were layers of images and ideas within us all that represent basic human principles, themes that we all hold in common, regardless of culture or experience, simply by virtue of our shared biology. He called these concepts “archetypes”.

Early in his career Sigmund Freud was fortunate enough to meet the woman of his dreams: she was beautiful, she was intelligent, she was fascinated by his theories, she was clearly destined to be his soul mate. What did he do? He married her dumpy and intellectually-challenged sister, and then just made everyone’s lives miserable. He and Jung parted ways over Freud’s obsession with sex as the root of all human emotion — he felt so strongly about it that when Jung contradicted his theories he would burst into tears, and sometimes faint dead away. A carpenter might find the perfect opportunity to polish his skills by living in a really old house that is in constant need of repair: perhaps the same principle applies.

Whereas Freud traced everything back to some rather gruesome principles of childhood psycho-sexual development, Jung interpreted the behavior of human beings as the expression of our relationships to the internal archetypes. He was fascinated by frameworks such as alchemy and the Tarot, in which experience and interaction are formulated into a complex, but internally consistent, symbolic language, representing our innermost feelings and impulses through highly developed images. Both Freud and Jung saw great value in dreams as a means for the “unconscious” to express itself without being edited or suppressed by our conscious selves, and both organized elaborate systems of interpretation — Freud, typically, relating everything to sex, and Jung searching the dream imagery for evidence of the archetypes, hoping to use these symbols as guides to the underlying mind of the dreamer.

Today, many of those who study such things believe that there is, in fact, no structure to dreaming; that only upon waking do we attempt to drag the tattered bits and pieces of meaningless imagery that may have haunted our sleep into some kind of recognizable narrative. Others believe that dreaming is simply a way for our minds to sort and prioritize the vast accumulation of images and feelings that we experience during our waking hours, filing away important concepts in a sort of underground memory, a river of experience that bubbles up to provide our moments of déjà vu or inspiration, allowing our waking selves to reach beyond the daylight world for the ideas and connections that separate us from cats and cattle and coyotes.

Me, I’ll go with the middle ground: Like everyone else, I’ve found myself in the embarrassing position of telling some story about a past experience — completely sure of my facts — only to be contradicted by someone else who was also present at the time. Memory, clearly, is flawed, even when we’re wide awake: how much more unreliable might it be when we attempt to bridge the gap between waking and sleep?

On the other hand, if I had the conscious ability to assemble the sort of scenarios that I wake up from two or three times a week I’d be in Hollywood, and Johnny Depp would be camped out on my doorstep waiting for a chance at the next screenplay. Something is going on in my skull while I’m snoring into my pillows.

I like dreams: even nightmares can seem like a window into another world, a place where many of the same people live and work and play, but where the rules are different: a stairway can go up or down forever; a room can become larger or smaller from one moment to the next; a ventriloquist’s dummy can chase you down the hallway and out into the front yard, gibbering wildly from that creepy little hinged jaw and waving its disgusting little arms. (Those things should be outlawed. I mean, really.) In our dreams we have the opportunity to live in two different realities, and sometimes we get to take a little something from one to the other.

When I was a boy I dreamed about pirates and giant ants and the Blob. Now I’m thinking I ought to write a movie about the family ghost. Tonight I’m putting a notebook next to my bed: Tim Burton, get out of my way.


Through the Eyes of a Child.

Today I’m doing something a little different, in recognition of Memorial Day: I’m inviting a guest to speak to my readers. My mother was a child living at Hickam Field on the Hawaiian island of Oahu when it was bombed by Japanese planes on December 7, 1941. Needless to say, she remembers the occasion well, and has offered to write about it here. I’ve added a few sidebar notes for historical context, and edited very slightly for length, but otherwise, these are her own words. Enjoy! Continue reading

The View from the Tower.

I often read novels by Latin-American authors in the original Spanish.

I know, I know: at least part of the reason for doing it is just to be able to make statements like that — we all carve out these nuggets of self-esteem where we can find them — but the fact remains that some stars really do shine brighter in the universes that gave them birth. Continue reading

Household Gods.

Somewhere back in the mid 1970’s my mother decided to attend night classes at our local junior college. I encouraged this ambition in the hope (futile, as it turned out) that she would get it out of her system before I graduated high school, as I was not altogether thrilled at the idea of finally starting college only to find my mother already there. Since I had recently acquired (on the second try) a shiny new driver’s licence, it became my job to drive her the mile or so from our home to the campus a couple of nights a week. Continue reading

Cracking the Whip.

I’ve been neglecting this blog for the past few days.

Naturally, I have plenty of excuses: a miserable bout of spring allergies, a busy Easter weekend, new clients to sort out … My creativity really shines when it comes to thinking up excuses. Unfortunately, as a teacher once pointed out to me many years ago (Mr Lambert, 7th grade), if you have to come up with more than one reason for failing to do what you’ve committed to do, then obviously none of your reasons is good enough. Continue reading