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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Five Tales from Ischia: The 1st Tale (The Crossing)

Pozzuoli

Procida

On June 25, 2007, after a day in Dublin with my dear friend Joe Ross, I took the plane to Naples, from where I had been told I could would the ferry at Beverello (the Naples harbor) to Ischia. But just before leaving, I had received an e-mail from my friend Marty Nakell, my host in Ischia, that the hotel where I was to stay had arranged that I should be met at the airport and guided to Ischia. Naples, everyone had noted, was a dangerous city, and a bit intimidating upon one’s first visit.



As the plane set down at the airport, the other passengers and I were taken by bus to what appeared to be a large hanger, something left-over, it seemed to me, from World War II, from the years when my air force-serving father had been stationed in that city.



It was beastly hot—an African sirocco was embracing Naples—and except of the languid movements of a large overhead fan high above the hanger, no air moved. At the passport control, an officer collected all American passports, letting the European Union members through before stamping our documents and returning them to us. My bags seemed to take forever.



As I exited, I was met by a driver who took the bags into his van. We drove to another terminal where he temporarily left me alone to roast, soon after coming back to remove my things and signaling me to follow him. In another van, he stashed my suitcases, leaving me to trail after him into the new terminal, where he passed me on to a “collega.” His “colleague” pointed to the chair, suggesting I sit there to wait as he went forward, sign in hand, evidently to pick up another traveler or travelers from Milan. Clearly they (my first driver and this new “collega”) were consolidating their passengers, but as time passed and no one returned, I began to imagine all sorts of other scenarios. I’d hardly gotten a glimpse of my “new” driver. He might have slipped out the door with the crowds, leaving me to guilelessly wait for his return for hours before the truth would become apparent! Was this a new method of robbery? I had no choice but to patiently endure, and eventually he returned with the elderly Milano couple.



They, like the driver, spoke no English, but we smiled at one another, greeting each other as best we could.



After a few more delays—the Milan gentleman evidently wanted to buy something to eat and his wife had forgotten to pur-chase film for their camera—we were off, presumably to Beverello. As he came to the Naples turn off, however, the driver took the direction to Poz-zuoli—a somewhat picturesque but di- lapidated harbor, heaped with mounds of garbage bags alongside its winding roads from the hills down into the harbor. At points the passage became perilous, as the couple from Milan, clearly commenting on the terrible filth their Southern brethren had to endure, snapped photographs of the mountains of local trash.



Finally, we reached the ferries, crawling into a line so close to water’s edge that I was sure we would fall into the dirty habor. Again the driver stopped the van, turned off the engine, and signaled for us to collect our bags and follow him. We entered the dark bowels of the ferry and were taken to a small iron cage into which he tossed our suitcases. Familia, he said, familia, pointing at the cage with pride. I presumed he meant that the placement of our bags in that location was not available to all, but was a special perk offered only family members and friends. Although family, of course, could mean…. I tried to ignore that possibility.



The Milanese couple climbed to the second level, I, after purchasing bierra, to the third level to better witness the Pouzzuolian landscape. From this distance the fading colored apartment fortresses appeared like a vision of a Mediterranean movie set. But if one looked closely, the glamour quickly faded.



Eventually cars began to edge forward, winding their way from the first line into the boat. I presumed our van would soon follow, but as the haul began to close, I could see that the second line, wherein our driver had placed the van, had not been permitted to enter. And the boat soon backed away without him from the dock.



So, I concluded, we were now on our own. I had been told that there would be two stops previous to Forio, near where our hotel was located. From Forio I’ll catch a taxi to the hotel, I determined.



A short while after leaving the harbor and rounding the coastline, the wind picked up and the waves of the Tyhrennian Sea became more blue-green. And just as suddenly an island appeared on the horizon. Despite the strong sun and my fear of sunburn I couldn’t bear to leave my observation post. Soon we were approaching what I presumed was Ischia Porto. The small town had a series of castle-like structures at its point, just as in the postcard picture I had seen of Ischia’s largest city and the castle Argonese at its tip.



But here my eye was even more drawn to the village itself, a town so absolutely enchanting that I could hardly find words to describe it to myself. It was a kind of fantasy scene as if painted by Henri Rosseau. Each building was a different shade of salmon, yellow, light blue and green—all flat as a stage set. The harbor street was strung up with little pennants and firefly lights. But the most amazing thing about this charming scene was the variation of windows, some half circles planted into the center of the seemingly flat surfaces, others turned on their side and set with no particular logic half way between the second and third floors. No building matched any other, which further gave the whole a sense of its being a movie or stage set. If this was, as the Nakell’s had described it, the lesser enchanting of the Ischian cities, what might Forio look like?



“Procida, Procida” the ship’s communication system announced. No such city had appeared upon my Ischia schedule. After a short stop, the boat pulled away from the village and, soon after, the island I later discovered was Procida disappeared. I was confused, if this was not Ischia Porto, where were we?


Three men in company T-shirts stood before me, and I attempted to ask them if Forio was the third stop, but none of them spoke English. I tried again, counting out my three known stops on my fingers: Ischia Porto, Lacco Ameno, Forio? “Si, Ischia Porto,” he repeated. I was confused, and began to seek out someone who spoke English. Apparently no one on this boat spoke anything but Italian, and I began to grow a bit concerned about my destination. A short while later, the man with whom I attempted to communicate reappeared with an English-speaking Italian in tow, who quickly explained to me that this boat did not go to Forio!



Why hadn’t Marty simply left me to follow the first plans we made, to catch the taxi from the airport to Naples itself where many boats traveled each day to Ischia and back? All right, I thought to myself, I’ll have to catch a taxi or bus to Forio from Ischia Porto—another 20 minute trip. No problem, I attempted to calm myself.



But just as suddenly new fears arose. Would I be able to communicate to whomever I needed to that my bags had still to be retrieved from that mysterious iron cage?

Forio, June 26, 2007

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Dramatic Disproportionment




In 1989 or 1990 I contacted Farrar, Straus and Giroux about acquiring rights to their collection of F. T. Marinetti’s Selected Writings, originally published in 1972. After some negotiation I purchased those rights with the stated intention of changing the title (the Sun & Moon Press edition of 1991 was called Let’s Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings) and of separating Marinetti’s novel, The Untameables, from the manifestos and essays, with plans to publish it later.



Luce Marinetti Barbi, one of Marinetti’s daughters, argued for a new introduction which would incorporate the new Italian criticism contextualizing and basically dissociating Italian Futurism and Marinetti from Mussolini and the Fascist movement. Such an essay, I argued—hoping also to distance myself from what I perceived as an Italian political correction—would be difficult for an American critic, particularly given my finances and publication schedule, and would not be of significant importance to many American readers. I struck a compromise by including a short celebratory Preface about Marinetti’s importance by friend and critic Marjorie Perloff.



The book sold well and quickly went out of stock; I believe I published a second printing before, near the end of Sun & Moon’s existence, I surrendered the rights to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, planning a volume in Green Integer’s Project for Innovative Poetry series (PIP) on Futurism, with new translations of selected manifestos and essays by Paul Vangelisti and Guy Bennett.



Meanwhile, my friend Luigi Ballerini, also a friend of Luce’s, had encouraged me to publish a new translation of
The Untameables by his talented student, Jeremy Parzen. I agreed, as long as Luigi would write a new introduction, which might allow me to fulfill my commitment to Luce and Marinetti’s family. He readily agreed to do so.



For years, I felt that Luigi’s introduction was far too long and broad-reaching, but rereading it this summer (2007), I was impressed with its tone and Ballerini’s scholarship.
I published
The Untameables in my Sun & Moon Classics in 1994.



The original editor and translator of Let’s Murder the Moonshine, R. W. Flint, meanwhile, contacted me to say he’d never known of nor received a copy of the Sun & Moon edition. I was nonplussed and embarrassed since I had simply presumed he was deceased—Farrar, Straus and Giroux had never sent me his address nor presumably sent him any of their copies. I quickly mailed him the book with apologies.



When Farrar, Straus, and Giroux reacquired the rights to
Let’s Murder the Moonshine, they attempted to resell the book, and for a time my friends Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang of Exact Change considered reprinting it. I told them that several of my Italian translator friends had found the current edition to be fraught with errors and outdated stylistic mannerisms.



What a surprise, accordingly, to receive in October 2006 the new Farrar, Straus, and Giroux publication of Marinetti’s
Critical Writings, edited by Günter Berghaus and translated by Doug Thompson; this book contains all the works of the previous volume plus a wealth of new material by the great Italian innovator.



Green Integer announced a new printing of Parzen’s translation of The Untameables for 2008.

Westchester, October 1, 2007








Günter Berghaus, editor F. T. Marinetti: Critical Writings, translated by Doug Thompson
(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006)

Reading the new collection of F. T. Marinetti’s critical writings, edited by Günter Berghaus and translated by Doug Thompson, I was over the many months alternately elated and disgusted! How could one not be roused by Marinetti’s excited poetical rants? One can almost hear his voice—singing what I imagine as a somewhat high-pitched shrill siren-song of poetical and often political activism—in the early statements and manifestos of Futurism:

My friends and I had stayed up all night, sitting beneath of the lamps of
a mosque, whose star-studded, filigreed brass domes resembled our souls,
all aglow with the concentrated brilliance of an electric heart. For many
hours, we’d been trailing our age-old indolence back and forth over
richly adorned, oriental carpets, debating at the uttermost boundaries of
logic and filling up masses of paper with our frenetic writings.



begins Marinetti’s “The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism,” first published in February 1909. The preface and Manifesto scream out with the indignations of youth against a culture he and his friends saw as wallowing in the decadence of the past symbolized by the frail (and for Marinetti, “feminine”) light of the moon, a theme reiterated in his “Second Futurist Proclamation” in it’s subtitle, “Let’s Kill Off the Moonlight,” and in his 1911 renunciations of Symbolist masters, “the Last of the Lovers of the Moonlight.” The principles of his Manifesto itself represent a loony combination of daring and what seems as an absurdly naïve vision of the future, singing of the “love of danger,” “the use of energy and recklessness,” “courage, boldness, rebellion,” while arguing for “aggressive action, a restive wakefulness, life at the double, the slap and the punching fist.” Marinetti idealizes speed, the racing car, and machine-gun fire. Like the Russian Futurists, he calls for the destruction of museums, libraries, and “academies of any sort.” Like numerous calls for change by the young, the Futurists see themselves as singing the song of the “great multitudes,” reminding one at moments even of Whitman’s “body electric”: “the pulsating, night ardor of arsenals and shipyards, ablaze with their violent electric moons,” “railway stations, voraciously devouring smoke-belching serpents,” “bridges which, like great gymnasts, bestride the rivers, flashing in the sunlight like gleaming knives,” the “lissome flight of the airplane.” Just as the British Futurists later saw the vortex as putting an end to time and space, Marinetti and his friends proclaim “Time and Space died yesterday.”



This is all the heady stuff of youth (even though Marinetti was 33 at the time, young, but not still a “youth”), and along with his dozens of other proclamations and his aggressive transformations—well represented in this comprehensive selection of his writings—of Italian poetry, theatre, dance, music, cuisine, photography, and radio outlined in the earliest and latest of the Futurist writings, help one to realize just how remarkable was Marinetti’s contribution to the 20th century arts. His intoxicating, if slightly insane descriptions of a Theatre of Surprises and a “total theatre,” complete with multiple revolving stages and audience lit by varied colored lights below their feet separated from the stages by a moat of water wherein battleships raged, reveal an outrageously fertile imagination. Marinetti’s calls for a radio that would go beyond painting, beyond war and revolution, beyond chemistry, even beyond the Earth “by imagining the means necessary for journeying to the Moon” not only sound out an imaginary future for Italy and the world, but in retrospect appear nearly clairvoyant. So too were his calls for an “abstract cinema,” his proposals for a photography that engaged “the drama of moving and immobile objects,” “the drama of the shadows of contrasting objects,” the drama of humanized objects, turned to stone, crystallized or made plantlike by means of camouflage or special lighting,” “the fusion of images taken from below with those taken from above,” “moving or static views of objects or human and animal bodies,” “transparent and semitransparent images of people and concrete objects,” “organic composition of a person’s different states of mind,” an “art of photographing camouflaged objects,” in short, a “dramatic disproportionment,” resonate when one considers both film and photography from the other side of the century. Having dined on a meal (at Luigi Ballerini’s 1993 UCLA conference on Futurism) designed by Marinetti, I can tell you that his cuisine was, if nothing else, a lot more fun and sexy than any poet-inspired concoction I have experienced.



Hooray, then, for F. T. Marinetti and for the publication of this new gathering of his works!


But no matter how much desires to celebrate the poet and theorist, sadly, this collection also calls up his terrifyingly pernicious ideas: his repeated calls for war, combined with a breast-beating insistence of Italian nationalism that not only parallels but crosses paths with the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. And no matter how one might attempt to mollify Marinetti’s war-mongering and nationalistic attitudes—perceiving these issues as part and parcel of his desire to embrace the violence of a forceful life as opposed to a passive worshipping of the past—one cannot but recognize behind his statements the utter stupidity of those who pushed Europe into World War I and the blind hatred and murderous actions that led to World War II. Certainly, many of Marinetti’s desires for an Italy that “is both strong and free, no longer in servitude to its great Past…an Italy that is under no one’s control…sovereign, united, and indivisible” seem reasonable. Most Americans also want those things for their country. Marinetti even warns, in his 1919 essay “Futurist Democracy” that

Italian pride must not be, and is not, an imperialism whose goal
is to impose industries, to corner markets, to effect massive
increases in agrarian production….We want to create a true
democracy, conscious and bold….


Yet Marinetti’s “democracy” would have also kept women (the “feminine” principal being an absolute anathema to his thinking) from active roles in the society; diplomats, professors, philosophers, archeologists, critics, etc. etc would be rooted out by War (“This Futurist Year”). Time and again Marinetti and his Futurist friends are praised for acting out violence in public affairs, behaving much like Mussolini’s thugs before the rise of his party. Indeed, had Mussolini treated the Futurists better and not basically ignored them, as he did, it seems apparent to any careful reader of Marinetti’s work that he might have remained in league with the devil. Fortunately, feeling he had failed in his political activities, he turned in his later years more and more to new ideas regarding the arts.



Writers, even great ones—and I believe that Marinetti clearly aspired to greatness in his innovative methods—are not always good men, even sane men. The product of a romantic culture, with an exotic youth lived in Alexandria, Egypt (“On one side, my father’s house in Alexandria looked out onto a busy street, and on the other onto a huge walled garden that was filled with palm trees, fans gently waving against the foamy blue laughter of the African sea,” writes Marinetti in “Self-Portrait,” the earliest work in this volume), Marinetti rebelled against a past that also defined him. Like many others who embraced various forms of fascism (Lawrence, Pound, Hamsun, Lewis and Céline) the impatience for progress was often rooted in a simplified and idealized vision of the past. And while that fact does not ameliorate Marinetti’s many repugnant ideas for change, it does allow me to perceive them in the context of his idealistic and desirable interpenetration of all the arts and daily life.




Los Angeles, December 22, 2007

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Pits

Crown, now Sweetie

The latter half of this essay is based on a news story, “There’s a Dog in This Hunt” published in the Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2007

Who might have predicted when I chose the subtitle for this year’s volume, that the image of the dog would be so appropriate? While I certainly realized that current events, fueled by the Bush administration and the Iraq war, were leading us “to the dogs,” I could never have imagined how literal my prediction might become, that a major football player such as Michael Vick would be arrested for organizing and supporting dog fights and that he, personally, would be found responsible for killing several of the animals who did not sufficiently “perform.”


Nor could I have guessed that a groundskeeper at the Beverly Hills home of celebrity Ving Rhames would purportedly be mauled to death by Rhames’s massive bulldogs—although the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office argued that, despite the reports in the media, the caretaker apparently was not mauled by the dogs, but died, perhaps, of a heart attack.


Who might have imagined that the “queen of mean,” hotelier Leona Helmsley would, upon her death, leave her white Maltese, Trouble, a $12 million dollar trust fund?


Equally surprising was the day (October 17, 2007) the normally chipper and seemingly unflappable talk show host Ellen DeGeneres broke into tears on her own show as she related how, after adopting a pet dog, Iggy, she discovered the rambunctious little beast could not get on with her cats. Accordingly she had passed the dog on to her hairdresser’s family, whereupon the family’s 11 and 12-year old daughters fell in love with the pet. However, when the adoption agency heard of DeGeneres’ actions—a signed agreement specified that the animal would not be given away without the agency’s permission—people from the Mutts and Moms adoption center took the dog away and placed it in another family, leaving the two young girls in sorrow over Iggy’s loss. “I don’t want another dog,” cried the 11-year old Ruby, “I want Iggy.” Taking this incident to an even higher level of melodrama, the two women running Moms and Mutts, Marina Baktis and Vanessa Chekroun, received death threats.


From May to September of this year, numerous television and news reports announced attacks throughout Los Angeles by pit bulls, some resulting in extremely serious and life-threatening injuries. I began to notice these reports on May 6, when a pit bull that previously attacked and wounded two small dogs and killed a cat, was freed by an unknown person from County Animal Care and Control shelter and twelve hours later attacked a miniature Australian shepherd dog, biting three individuals who attempted to save the shepherd.


On June 4, two police officers responding to a burglary, were confronted by a vicious pit bull and shot the dog who was, according to the report, “inches away from biting” one officer’s leg. A month later, a pit bull attacked a small dog which officers, fearful that it would kill the dog and attack onlookers trying to separate the two, shot the pit bull, killing it.


On September 5, a pit bull named Maggie attacked a mail carrier in a neighbor’s yard, “repeatedly biting him in the face.” The owner of the pit bull had only a month earlier had another pit, Brutus, impounded and euthanized for biting a woman on the lip.


These were, moreover, only the attacks of which I read or heard; there were numerous others throughout the United States during this same period. Perhaps the worse case was the attack by a pit bull of three people, two of whom were hospitalized, during a Labor Day parade in Des Moines. But just as terrifying is the August 22nd mauling of a woman by two pit bulls as she lay asleep in her bed in Gig Harbor, Washington. Just four days before I wrote this piece, a woman in a suburb of San Francisco was attacked by a pit bull while she was holding her baby. In order to protect the child she was forced to throw her boy in a nearby garbage can.


As if I needed another incident in order to validate my choice of the bleak assessment of 2007, two days after Christmas a woman in the small, high desert town of Yermo, California, near Barstow, was attacked by three pit bulls and mulled to death. When friends and, later, police attempted to approach the dogs still surrounding the woman’s body, the dogs turned on them. Police shot and killed one of the dogs, and later shot a second aggressive pit in a search of the neighborhood.



Although I am sure that, given the ferocity of this breed, there are numerous such attacks every year, never before have I personally heard of so many attacks in such a brief period of time. Obviously I am attune to any mention of dogs in 2007, and this reportage may also have something to do with the fact that newscasters are increasingly shifting from actual “news” reporting to a coverage of weather catastrophes, car chases, and other “human interest” stories which include positive and negative interchanges with animals—also never before have I heard so many reports of bears and coyotes intruding upon local neighborhoods!


Yet this pit bull coverage, particularly when put in the context of a film like “Year of the Dog,” has led me to feel even more justified in my metaphoric expression of the direction of our society. Perhaps I should have described it as “the pits.”


I found it curious, accordingly, when I read in a front page story published in conjunction with the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, of a local woman who had helped save animals in New Orleans who were abandoned as the hurricane approached. Like other caring individuals, Pia Salk (daughter of the author and psychologist Lee Salk, and niece to the developer of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk) descended upon that devastated city, scooping up the surviving animals and placing them in the protection of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales to the west of the city. One of the pets placed under its protection was a dog from the “ravaged” Seventh Ward of the city, Crown, a pit bull belonging to Kara Keyes.


Upon returning to her half-destroyed home after the hurricane, Kara and her husband, finding others of their animals dead, did not even have the energy, so they claimed, to seek out the missing Crown, who had meanwhile been transferred to an Albuquerque shelter and ultimately adopted by Pia. Salk found the animal had not been spayed, that his ears had been badly clipped, and that the dog was suffering from worms.


When Salk’s other dog, her Labrador Luna, attacked her new friendly and trusting pit bull—whom she now called Sweetie—she advertised for another home with several shelters throughout the country. After hiring a dog trainer, however, Luna and Sweetie became friends, and Salk grew further attached to the animal.


Meanwhile, Sweetie’s picture on the internet reminded one animal shelter worker of Crown, and Keyes was contacted. She wanted the dog back, but in a telephone conversation with Salk, Keys was told by the young California woman that she was not willing to give the dog back to someone who did not know how to care for it.


Keyes was understandably insulted and has hired a lawyer to demand the return of the dog. But any judge, no matter how straight-forwardly the law may read (I presume that if they can properly identify the dog, that Keyes would be determined as the “owner”), if he can allow himself any consideration of the issue, is faced with a Solomonic decision.


The two pictures illustrating this article, one of a young, attractive, and casually dressed white woman (Pia Salk) with her dog Sweetie on a Southern California beach and the other of a clearly distressed, heavily tattooed black woman sitting upon her concrete steps outside her unpainted house speak volumes of the breach between these two animal-loving women.


The head of the Animal Rescue organization of New Orleans as well as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine explain that there are other traditions concerning animals at work here, that because of financial difficulties and social attitudes there is a reluctance to neuter animals or to test on a regular basis for heartworms in certain parts of the South. Pit bulls are prized for their fierceness of appearance, and so their ears are generally clipped. Unlike most parts of the United States where a dog must be tethered, in the poor South, “You come out, you whistle for your dog, and the dog comes back.”


The terrible divide of race is again called up in such images and statements. One wonders if these two New Orleans authorities quoted might have spent less time on accounting for the local traditions and more upon explaining to their local citizens why such actions often lead to dog attacks and to the death of the dogs themselves that the gap between the cultures—at least with regard to the care of animals—might have been somewhat bridged.

It is clear to me that Sweetie might be better cared for than Crown. Yet one also recognizes in the pained eyes of Kara Keyes the totality of her loss—not just of her beloved animal, but of everything in her life. Salk’s refusal to return her Crown, if nothing else, is a symbol of everything that has worked against her, a world that has created vast depths of human neglect.



In 1992 or 1993 Howard and I were invited to dinner at the house of actor Harry Hamlin and his then-wife, Nicollette Sheridan near Mullholland Drive. It was generally a pleasant evening as Nicollette described how Harry—whom she declared was a true “romantic”—had courted her. I don’t recall much else about the evening, except that we met Jonas Salk. He spent much of the evening describing how he and his research team would soon discover a cure for AIDS, something to be devoutly wished, but which obviously did not occur before his death in 1995. As Howard later described his impressions of the man, “he was certainly the center of all conversations, someone incredibly full of himself.”


However, growing up in a time when children about you were falling ill from polio, when parents, terrified of the mysterious crippler, frequently warned to dry off immediately after leaving the pool, and being of a generation who recall standing in long lines to receive the first vaccine for the dread disease, one can only be in awe of the man who so changed our lives.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dogs in Space

Laika, suited up for flight



On November 3, 1957 Laika, a mutt found on the streets of Moscow and trained as a canine astronaut to survive the sense of weightlessness and other atmospheric conditions, was blasted into to outer space on Suptnik 2. Soviet Premier Nikita S.Krushchev had insisted the Suptnik voyage be launched earlier than scientists had wished in order to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The dog, now a major hero of Russian history, survived the weightlessness but was overcome by heat some hours after launch, and was burned up with the satellite as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Laika (the Russian word for “barker”) was proclaimed a hero and to this day is memorialized and beloved by the Russian people.



Previously, on test flights, two dogs, Tsygan and Dezik flew with the first suborbital flight in July 22, 1951. Both survived, and Dezik was sent into space again, this time with Lisa; these dogs were killed when their parachute failed to deploy. Tsygan, who remained on the ground, lived to an old age. Albina and Tsganka were later blasted into space at an altitude of 53 miles. Both these dogs were safely recovered.



In July 28, 1960 two other dogs Bars (Panther or Lynx) and Lisichka (Little Fox)—like all the dogs in the Soviet program, products of Moscow’s streets—were launched in an attempted flight of the Vostok prototype. The booster exploded during launch, and both dogs were killed.



Sputnik 5 was launched on August 19, 1960, carrying two more Moscow dogs, Belka (Squirrel) and Strelka (Little Arrow). After spending a day in orbit, both dogs were safely re-overed. However the December 1, 1960 launch of Sputnik 6, holding Pchelka (Little Bee) and Mushka (Little Fly), who spent a day in orbit before being burned up with their craft during reentry.



The remaining astronaut dogs—Damka (Little Lady) and Krasavka (Beauty), launched on December 22, 1960; Cherushka (Blakie), launched on Sputnik 9 on
March 9, 1961; Zvezdochka (Little Star), launched on Sputnik 10; and Verterok (Little Wind) and Ugolyok (Little Piece of Coal), taken into space on Kosmos 110—all were safely recovered, the last mission landing after a 22 day voyage.



On the 50th anniversary of the first Suptnik flight (October 4, 1957) and of Laika’s November 3rd voyage that year, and in a year in which my memoirs had taken the metaphor of the dog as its organizing theme, I felt it only appropriate to memorialize those tortured beasts. Fortunately, moreover, Los Angeles is blessed with a strange “cabinet of wonders,” as author Lawrence Weschler has described it: The Museum of Jurassic Technology, a labyrinthine collection of wondrous inventions, works by nearly mad scientists and just plain technologically-interested kooks. Accordingly, after a reminder of their existence by the New York Times, one sunny Friday noon I found myself climbing that Museum’s stairs to a miniature salon where kitschly conceived portraits of Laika, Belka, Strelka, Zvezdochka and Uggolyok line the walls. These paintings, according to artist M. A. Peers, gave her an opportunity “to paint straight dog por-traits without irony and rely on the Jurassic to provide the context.”



I’m not sure I came away from the ox-blood, darkened room with any insights to these mut-tniks, as the American press referred to them at the time. I felt more pity, parti-cularly for Laika, than any other sentiment. But just knowing they were there—these ridiculous testimonies to man’s “new frontier”— left me with a sense of a bemused satisfaction.



I remember most of these dates well, having been encouraged in 5th grade to keep a daily diary of important historical events. And I remember writing down in wonderment the words Sputnik each time one of many versions of that word were catapulted into space. In 8th grade, moreover, I had entered the Civic Oration Contest (sponsored by the Modern Woodmen of America—to this day I can’t imagine who these strange “woodmen” were; I have always imagined them, like the tin man of The Wizard of Oz, covered from head to heel in metal).That year’s theme was “Space, Man’s New Frontier,” and I must have blathered on, I am sure, with patriotic platitudes about the great future we faced in outer space travel. I do recall gushing about the advances made by Dr. Werner von Braun. In any event, I won the contest, which I am sure is one of the reasons why I am writing this piece today!





Marion, Iowa, November 23, 2007



As a final statement about a world that has gone “to the dogs,” I came upon an essay in the January 8, 2008 Los Angeles Times by Megan K. Stack about the Moscow subways. The vision she presented of the subways running below the “lawless and mad, cold and rich” city above (Moscow is now the most expensive city in the world) reminded me of the utter poverty I witnessed there on my 1989 trip to the then-Soviet Union. Stack describes the masses of working class Russians under the now-dimly lit chandeliers of the once acclaimed Metro in a mad swirl around their less fortunate compatriots—beggars, drunken men and women, and an old woman whose back “was so hunched she couldn’t get her chin off her chest” surrounded by “mean-looking teenagers in scarred leather jackets” who scrape together change to give her. In a world of such struggle and survival, the condition of animal life—even in a city that still venerates its mutniks—seems of little importance. Poignantly, Stack describes a stray dog, limping confusedly on three legs in the tangle of turnstiles.” “His front paw dangled. It appeared to be split in two, dripping blood, as if somebody had stomped on it. He was glancing around desperately, as though he was looking for help.”



Without any idea of how to save it—it was too big to carry and she had no idea how to find a Russian vet—she nonetheless looked for it only to discover it has melted into the crowd. The image haunted her all day, and when she described it to her Russian teacher, the woman gave her “an incredulous look”: “But the people you see on the Metro have horrible problems,” she reproaches. Stack’s later breakdown into tears reminds me of my response to an abandoned child on the streets on Sāo Paulo [see My Year 2000].



Perhaps it is fitting, in the context of this painful image, that I stand this year’s metaphor on its head and drink a toast to those poor animals who have so fatally linked their fates to our species: “To the dogs!”

Los Angeles, January 12, 2008