“…and yet, in that despair, which is transcendent, you will find the ancient understanding that the Philospher’s stone will always be found despised, and buried in the mud.” –The Counselor
As a committed cultural observer one of my responsibilities is to review the daily casualty lists. The list comes down to me by way of media platforms, which I endeavor to keep diverse in an-going effort to bolster the middle mind. My theory is that by keeping track of lunatics on either end I can generally navigate my way to a rational center, which as Henry Adams pointed out is usually somewhere closer to the truth–though not always. Some stories have no middle at all, and are just wildly bad and wrong and disturbing. This morning’s casualty list contained such a horrifying tale from Stockton, California, about a fireman who was shot to death while putting out a dumpster fire. Under such terrible circumstances I hope you’ll forgive me for saying that the entire City of Stockton, California, is a dumpster fire, and no part of me was surprised this horrifying event happened there.
The victim, Captain Max Fortuna, was a career fireman, with a family and children, and he will be mourned for a life of dedicated service to his community. But I was also struck by the story of the man who killed him, a 67 year old man called Robert Somerville. A local news station (abc10) reported the following statement from Somerville’s family:
“Words alone will never be enough to express the devastation and sorrow that we feel for Stockton Professional Firefighter Max Fortuna’s wife and two children. I can assure Firefighter Fortuna’s immediate Family, and all who care for Mr. Fortuna that this was not an intentional callous act in the death of Mr. Fortuna.
Robert ‘Bob’ Somerville 67 is not a violent person and is a long-standing business owner (and former engineer) in the Stockton community… for over 30 years. He operates his business, and resides in the warehouse that was adjacent to where the fire occurred at 5:00 am this morning.
Having been a victim of constant attempted break-ins, due to his business/home being located in an area plagued with the highest concentration of homeless individuals, Mr. Somerville as recently as 1 week ago reinforced parts of his property to add an additional layer of security. It is our understanding that Mr. Somerville believed his property was being burglarized, which led to this horrific chain of tragic events.
We just ask that the Fortuna Family and public please withhold judgment on the state of mind and intent of Mr. Somerville until all of the facts come to light.”
It’s generally a mistake to form broader assumptions based on limited information and news releases, but it isn’t difficult to see even more incidents like these coming our direction. Closer to home, Bend, Oregon, has a problem with homelessness that isn’t going away, and could easily lead to a similar set of tragic circumstances. Even closer to home there are dozens of people living in our forests, and I worry that they will set them alight, either on purpose or accidentally, although the distinction is hardly important.
Fire is the one thing that keeps me awake at night.
I often hear that violence does not solve problems, which is false. Occasionally violence is the only way to solve a problem, and history is rich with examples. But this wasn’t one of them. And it is a great reminder, if nothing else, that a solution involving firearms can be permanent–and wrong–in the hands of a user who doesn’t understand the fallout. I say this because I see far too many folk who are far too cavalier about what they think they would do with a gun in their hand–and what will happen next–and I worry for them.
Also, I will not be watching the Winter Olympics. Mostly I just don’t care about the sports involved, but I do have philosophical issues with the Chinese Communist Party and its on-going genocide of Uighurs which includes internment camps, forced sterilization, and organ harvesting among other delightful prospects. There’s also the social credit score thing and whatever happened at Wuhan and the Tibet issue and the list goes on ad infinitum. The International Olympic Committee isn’t exactly a vessel to pour much faith into, and while they claim the games should be above politics nobody really believes they actually are. The games are about money and prestige for the host nation and I don’t think China deserves either one. There’s also a high probability that we will be at war with China in the not-so-distant future and I’d just rather have been consistent when they start sinking our aircraft carriers.
Meantime, I read yesterday that a woman claims to have been virtually raped in the Metaverse. This is probably the first of many. These days we can enjoy Taylor Sheridan’s 1883, and rue the considerable dangers of crossing the Red River in a wagon, and I suppose in the future they will sit around expounding on the dangers of pioneering the Metaverse. I’ve done precious little research on the happenings in the Metaverse but it is safe to say I don’t want to go there. It’s just not a frontier I care to visit. The earth-verse is difficult enough to negotiate without slapping on a set of goggles and vanishing into the wilderness of ones and zeros. This is probably proof that my kind is not fit to reproduce–if we look at it from an evolutionary standpoint. And anyway, I like banana slices on my Wheaties, and I’m told you cannot get banana slices on a bowl of Wheaties in the Metaverse.
One thousand years ago, when I was a junior in high school, I was selected to attend a summer quarter at UC Santa Barbara for a thing they called the “Young Scholars” program. I was not a young scholar and, it turns out, neither was anyone else who spent that summer getting our bicycles stolen and taking pretentious undergraduate classes like “Biomedical Ethics” which was taught, strangely enough, by an associate professor stricken with Turret’s Syndrome and who, in the middle of a lecture on abortion ethics, would suddenly bark “Piss Bitch!” or “Fuck Ass!” to a room full of startled undergraduates. I dropped the class after a couple of weeks and settled for a history of World War One taught by a consumptive Austrian old enough to have served as Franz Ferdinand’s personal valet. It remains one of the best courses I have ever taken.
By comparison, I was a hayseed. Most of the other kids—virtually all of them, in fact—were on loan from Andover Prep or Harvard High in L.A.. They oozed with moneyed certainty and hadn’t seen their parents in years. The kid across the hall had his own apartment in Studio City, flew off to New York to see his girlfriend on weekends, and was essentially farmed from one program to the next by parents who thought they were doing him a favor. He seemed sad about it. There was a career and a life already lined out for him and I have sometimes wondered, or imagined, if all of that could have lead him to Cantor-Fitzgerald and a fiery hell on the 105th floor of One World Trade Center. I sincerely hope that wasn’t the case, but the path was leading in that direction, and he was definitely on it.
My roommate was a Mexican kid from an LA magnet school who dressed in a kind of toned-down zoot suit ensemble, and was sincerely grounded in the sidewalk realities of Boyle Heights. It was a tradition for students to paint the doors to their dorm rooms as an expression of their precious inner workings but we decided instantly that ours was already at goal. It had been done up by the previous occupants with an enormous radiation trefoil and seemed to express our precise condition amongst the others. We got along splendidly.
I ended up spending considerable time with some Korean-American kids who took me along for a valuable glimpse at the kind of life I wasn’t likely to see back home on the sagebrush frontier. They drove Mercedes convertibles, played golf, lived in mortal terror of disappointing their parents, and had already been accepted to Yale and Princeton. At a Korean restaurant somewhere in LA one of them leaned over and told me I was “cultured.” That hardly seemed possible but I think he was trying to tell me I wasn’t a racist. Maybe he only said that because I was slurping up a bowl of kimchi hot enough to jumpstart the Saturn V.
Life offers little victories and that one amuses me whenever I’m reminded of it.
It’s hard to know with any precision when we have crested the slope, when wine, women, and song becomes yogurt, hearing aids, and Aspercreme, but it can never be that far away. I’ve already got the hearing aids—I’ve mostly stopped wearing them in a kind of dull protest against death–and my eyesight is in some kind of rapid decline. The eyesight thing bothers me most because now I’m chained to a crutch and my enjoyment of shooting has suffered as a consequence. Sub MOA groups at 400 yards may be relics of the past, which saddens me. In the long ago I could spot a feral cow in the bitterbrush from a mile away, and now I’m in a kind of fugue state trying to figure out how to make the font bigger on my iPhone, a thing old enough to be approaching the sudden catastrophic failure of planned obsolescence.
My grandmother, wracked with arthritis, and also endowed with those Norwegian and Midwestern sensibilities that helped win World War Two, once told me that “Getting old isn’t for sissies.” She was right, of course, though at the time it didn’t register the way it does now, and anyway I was recovering from her unexpected use of the word sissies, which was probably the most severe word she ever uttered in her life.
One thing I’m trying to avoid is the indignity of being wheeled into the day-room for group exercises at “Autumnal Leaves”, which is a raisin farm in Ricky Gervais’ excellent series After Life where his father—suffering from dementia—mostly doesn’t recognize him and makes increasingly inappropriate sexual commentary to the nurses.
I’d prefer not to be that kind of autumnal leaf, if I can avoid it. My father—who was an excellent writer and penned two books—once made a provocative short story about a man who kept a shotgun in his closet the way a POW might keep a cyanide tablet in his socks. I think, had he lived, my father might have been a candidate for the Ketchum Solution because he was manic and driven in similar ways. Hemingway’s final months were dark indeed, full of electro-shock treatments and other deeply disturbing medical experiments, which my dad—who despised doctors—would not have tolerated as long as poor Hem.
But that’s not for me. I’d rather go out like Tom Blasingame, under a mesquite tree with my arms folded over my chest and my saddle horse grazing around nearby.
I wrote recently that we make things more complicated than they really are, which is the kind of thing a mostly optimistic and committed daydreamer must say if he’s stuck in the trenches at Verdun, fighting off rats, grinding his teeth under relentless poundings by the collective Arms of Krupp, and dreaming of sunny days back home in the Midlands. We have to say these things in the wryest of ways, because even though the statement is true the flares still go up and the shells still come down and what we wish things could be is mostly irrelevant. Cormac McCarthy seems to have a stronger grip on that than most, or at least knows how to experiment with the idea in beautiful ways.
There are many questions, and hardly ever enough answers, and so this man in Stockton, his rope finally frayed, shot a fireman. He thought, for a moment, he had an answer for those many things that troubled him. He did not, and the world he wanted can now never be the world he will have. That’s probably true of all of us, if we are not careful and diligent, and so the whole world, quietly, and relentlessly, just keeps looping back around to the essential friction of unmanaged expectations.