Thursday, December 20, 2018

As promised (to myself, anyway), my last post

She was Pearly, but hardly ever Pearly. She was Pearly Girl, Funny Face, Fuzzy Face, Goofball, Goof Nugget, Old Girl, Old Puppy. What was her breed? It depended on who asked: TerriBull sometimes, but more often Arctic Pygmy Wolf.

She was Sugar Booger, Sugar Butt, Chicken Butt, Punkin' Dolly, Pearly Boo and Pearly Boom Boom. Sweety Poppers and Kokomo Joe, the Eskimo. Grumpy Gus in her last months.

Nancy called her Pur Pur, which is just silly.

Pearly Ann (with an e?) Turner was her given name, supposedly. It never settled in me that she was another child of the family. "Owner" didn't seem right either because, most days, who owned whom? "Steward," is more like it. She came into our home, became part of our lives. Got fed, took walks, hung out. Win-win.

Pearly passed away Sunday on one of her blankets, in a soft-lit room at the veterinarian's office. The drugs went into a catheter in her front leg, and soon she eased against Nancy, settling as if for one more morning nap, except her clouded eyes remained open, as the veterinarian had warned. Pearly looked as she did so many, many days, stretched across the hallway, her body a hair-trigger alarm, monitoring household traffic for the possibility of a meal.

[Bear with me. This is an ordinary story about an ordinary dog and ordinary people. You've probably been through this, but I — we — are new to it.]

Our dog was a couple of weeks shy of her 17th birthday. After she passed, the veterinarian asked us just to knock on the inner door when we were done, and the staff would take care of the rest. Then she left. We tousled Pearly's warm stiff fur, trying not to say too much because it would only make us cry. The last I saw of our dog as the outer door swung closed was her front paws, having grown long and slender, somehow, in her last year. We composed ourselves for the walk out.

Are we waiting for her ... or are you waiting for us? Nancy asked the vet the weekend before.

She has no quality of life anymore, the vet said. And I'm afraid she is only going to get worse. It's a decision you have to make.

In that week it was getting worse. Her hind legs, stiff and straight, had become stiff and bent. Her front legs splayed out to hold her weight. In the last few months, she stood and mostly stared, at us, at the darkness outside the window. I think it hurt to sit. She leaned against the wall of the kitchen, the carpet giving her traction, watching dinner cook. Her desire to eat had by then been matched her dread of having to ice skate across the slick kitchen floor to her dish. When she slept, it came after the reluctant effort of falling to the floor.

Her voice had gone. She barked hoarsely at the advent of her morning mixture of oatmeal and dry kibble. She whined, but no noise came. When we petted her, she shrank back with a start, unaware we were standing beside her. After a few seconds of petting, she snarled and snapped to be let alone.

But she could eat! She could always eat. She could eat and get sick if we let her, and right away eat again. As our daughter memorialized, Pearly loved people but loved food more.

The veterinarian made us understand it was the wrong barometer to measure her life.

How fierce is youth and how fast it goes, is what Pearly taught me.

We got her at the pound. She was Hope on the paperwork, but became Pearly because her puppy fur was bright, almost shimmery. The fur on her tail braided like berber carpet nearly to its tip. Hope would still have been a good name for her, always hoping for food.

The kids wanted her, and I did not, mostly because it ended up just as I had expected, with me caring and feeding.

But as I suspect for most dogs, Pearly made the burden bearable. Even if she did chew the furniture.

Pearly fit my lifestyle at the time, freelancing from home. We started the day with a long walk, sometimes driving to explore unfamiliar faraway neighborhoods. Her first walk was a disaster, though; after I took off her leash back home, it was another hour before I found her, scootched as far back as she could under our son's bed, afraid of the world. But the next day she was ready to venture again. I was so naive I didn't realize a big reason dogs like walks is so they can poop. A kitchen drawer is still filled with bags for the purpose.

She napped in my office, then sprang up at my slightest movement, hopeful it meant a car ride. She was my errand/delivery sidekick, using every available space in the car to scout the route and bark at dogs. She stood on the back seat and leaned against me, heavy and powerful, to look out the front window. Most days she got soft-serve ice cream as reward for averting danger.

We took her to obedience classes and she became a good girl, showing all the useful tricks. Except how to act with other dogs. The obedience instructor got sick and canceled the class before we got to that part.

On what turned out to be the last class the dogs were let off their leashes for free time. The other dogs chased Pearly into the floor-level compartment of a cat tree, where she batted at their attacks with one free paw. I don't think she ever forgot it, and for the rest of her life, while she could still see and hear and expend energy, she never let another dog pass by without a good chewing out. The same went for dogs on TV. She'd rage against them, then run out to the backyard, where they must be, to give them some more. To annoy dog-less guests, we had only to say, "Doggy on TV!" and Pearly would pollute the air with anger.

Her mortal enemies, though, were garbage trucks. She could hear them from two blocks away and protested nonstop until the trucks passed. And we live on a cul de sac, doubling her outrage. The worst was getting caught on a walk when the garbage truck slowly passed, roaring and squeaking and whining. Pearly was almost impossible to contain.

Somehow she loved horses. She became a superfan, whining and wiggling and tap dancing in their presence. Once we walked near the state fairgrounds, where trainers were taking trotters through their paces. Pearly went wild and chittery in a way I had never seen before; if we could have gone down to the track, it would have been the greatest moment in her life.

Play with her long enough, and eventually Pearly would begin sprinting in boundless glee through the house, up the hallway and back again into the living room, skidding and turning in one motion, gathering again to race across the kitchen floor to the family room, and back again, full speed, the whites of her eyes showing as she looked down her snout. Then stop, panting happily.

Our son reminisces about trips to the beach, vast expanses of sand on which, in the absence of people or dogs, she could run and run and run. And dig and dig. She loved the beach, our son says, but hated the ocean. Hated all water, in fact, except to drink.

Our daughter reminds us Pearly didn't understand fetch. She'd run after what was thrown, but wouldn't retrieve it. Or if she did, wouldn't give it back.

Pearly once could leap from a standing start onto our high bed, and command position for the night. It was almost hard to believe in her last days, when she refrained from even getting into her doggy bed with its shallow stuffed border, and fell to the floor instead.

About two years ago, she decided her walks were done. She'd allow us to attach her leash and lead her out the door, but would stop at the corner, look at the world ahead, then turn around for home.

She stopped going out in the backyard, which meant she stopped leaving a trail of leaves in the house. Garbage trucks and dogs passed without notice, because she could no longer notice them. It was a sort of blessing for her, because the noise no longer tormented her. I think it was some noise or other that once in a while would cause her to burrow deep into Nancy's closet, where she hid, buried in shoes, until found at the end of the day.

I had one other dog, Taffy, when I was a kid. She was sandy-haired too, in memory much like Pearly. We kids wanted her; I don't think my dad did. She was an outdoor dog, untrained; whenever the gate was opened too long, Taffy would dart out and run down the street, who knows where. Because a bully lived on the other side of the back fence, I was not keen to spend much time with her in the backyard. But for my sister, the backyard was her realm, a walled city, and Taffy her subject, her steed, her companion.

Taffy got old and sick and had to be taken away and put to sleep. I found my dad in the backyard by the gate, weeping. I had never seen him cry like that. "She's just a dog! Just a dog!" he kept saying. Stupid me realized at that moment dad was Taffy's carer and feeder. The reason I was shocked the first time Pearly pooped is because I don't remember ever seeing Taffy's poop in the yard. Dad did it all, and never said a word about it. Maybe he thought it one more chore he was tired of trying to get me to do.

I guess I tried to make up for that with Pearly.

[On the morning she would be put to sleep, I went for a cleansing swim. The lake temperature had dropped, 52 or 53, about right for the season, and the current was strong, even at the wide shallow starting point. Good. It would give my body an unrelenting fight while my mind poked at thoughts.

[How far could I go this morning? It was hard to say. The current suggested I wouldn't make it farther than the third bridge. At the rocky island downstream from the second bridge, where the channel narrowed and the current strengthened, I began to make my bid, preparing to zag to the opposite bank where the back eddies lived and I had a fighting chance. 

[A noise came, and then again, rising. Someone was calling at me.

[I fantasize about this. Occasionally a kayaker or fisher will ask me how the water is, and I say it's fine! I don't know how you do it! they say. You get used to it, I say, you should try it! Sometimes fishermen drifting by in their boats will tell me I'm crazy. I smile. It's no big deal; but come on: Cold, current, yeah, I have to remind myself it's a big deal.

[This was not one of those fantasies. I scanned around for the source.

[Hey! Hey! HEEEEeeeeeYYYyy! Watch where you're going! What in the fuck do you think you're doing?!! said the voice. It was coming out of a green and gray and tan shape against the green and gray and tan bank, distinguishable now by the flailing arms.

[I'm, uh, swimming, I wanted to say.

[I'm trying to fish here!! You can't just come through here!

[I gave him a sarcastic A-OK gesture. I'm not sure how sarcastic it looked, drifting backward as I was in the current.

[He may have gone into a recitation of his preparation to fish this spot, or gnashed at the indignity of my blundering in (at the speed of a calendar) to ruin his reverie. I'm not sure: I had wax plugs in my ears, and I was zooming farther away.

[But I did recognize when the Angry Fisherman said, Why don't you pay fucking attention next time?!

[Next time? I thought as I bobbed downstream. You're coming back?!

[So many things I thought to say in response. All I managed was, Calm down, Dude! before swimming back, thinking of more I could have said. Such as, I thought fishing was supposed to be a relaxing hobby! Or, What are you fishing with, gill nets?! I wondered whether it would have done any good to explain that swimming in the cold current was hard enough without you fishing along the shore. Or how I swam this stretch of lake precisely because people like you aren't on these rocky shores; and if they are, they are most definitely not like you, but lift their lines and speak civilly so they don't scare away the fish. Or, You know what, you're really angry!

[I dressed and drove up the road over the bridge to see where the Angry Fisherman was, thinking about talking to him, not knowing what to say. By the time I parked, I saw him walking back into the town, multiple poles in one hand, and decided to let it all go. Maybe he was having a bad day. As I would be.]

Pearly barked as ever for her last meal Sunday, scooting excitedly in circles as best her body would allow. Her last meal, only she didn't know. I had just enough oatmeal left for it. Every other time I cooked up a new batch, put it in the bowl and the bowl back into the refrigerator. Sunday I put the bowl in the kitchen sink instead.

Nearly a week has passed and we're still living by the rhythms Pearly created for us. We'll start to look for her when we get home, or expect her to show her head at the smell of dinner. This morning I scooted my feet on the carpet as I got up, unconsciously dreading the poop Pearly may left because she could no longer control herself to go outside. I reminded myself this morning I didn't have to wait for her to finish breakfast so she could go out front with me as I fetched the paper; I could just go get the paper.

Her crate and water dishes are set aside in the garage for donation. The little rugs to give her traction are picked up and packed up. Her doggy beds are gone.

The sliding glass door leading to the backyard, propped open most days all these years for her, is shut.

Thank you for a good life, little dog. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


William D. Turner, remembered in Coco.
Our daughter bestowed a lovely, lasting gesture, telling us this Thanksgiving shortly before showing us.

Go see Coco, the new Pixar/Disney movie, and you'll see it too — if you know where to look.

At the end of the movie, after the closing credits, Pixar created a virtual ofrenda — an altar in the Mexican holiday tradition of Dia de Muertos, honoring and remembering those who have passed away.

On the black screen, surrounding the words, "To the people across time who supported and inspired us," spring dozens and dozens of images.

Three rows below the words, to the left, is this photograph of my dad, William Turner, grandfather to our children, who called him "OomPapa."

Dad passed away 14 years ago this week.

Coco is a wonderful movie, as rich in story as in color, about remembering family and finding one's whole self in those who have gone before. Images placed on the ofrenda are crucial to the story because they allow the dead to visit the land of the living during this holiday, which coincides with All Soul's Day.

By hard work, adherence to a plan she kept close to her heart, and great good fortune, our daughter got a job at Pixar Animation Studios. Coco was the first project Maura joined. She couldn't tell us anything about it at first. In time she got permission to tell us the name of the movie, but not much else for a while. In the nature of the business, our daughter has moved from project to project at Pixar, working in teams to help move each along to production. Coco has been like home to her.

She got two screen credits! "Hey, there she is!" we said aloud in the theater as her name rolled by, and then again. Only one other group besides our family remained in the theater to have heard us. Staying for the credits is a lost art. Besides seeing someone you're related to, you get to hear music that inspired the movie makers. Pixar often uses what look like development sketches in the credits, and I like to look at the rough art that turned into the final ideas.

It's hard for me to tell when and where the photo of my dad was taken. Well before me, at least. It's one of those photos from a time he seemed so different from my dad, with the look of a rakish charmer.

Coco's crew got to each choose one image for the onscreen ofrenda. It was hard for Maura to choose, I could tell, because as in the movie, all who have passed on in her life have shaped her and still shape her in their own way. Barry "Papa Bear" Lewis, her other grandpa. Grandma Bonnie, my mom. Her Uncle Stephen. She'd like to have another chance to talk with OomPapa, she says, and ask him about his life.

You and me both, kid.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Goodbye, swim coach

Some of my swim literature, Terry Laughlin's along with
Lane Lines toShore Lines by Gary Emich and Phil DiGirolamo,
which helped me swim from Alcatraz.
Terry Laughlin has died.
He taught me to swim.

After my cousins Mike and Pat, that is, who on a summer vacation to their town long long ago, proved at their neighborhood pool that holding my breath while under water wouldn't kill me, and that knowing how to glide like a sea mammal far below the surface was worth the $1.50 to get in.

And after a half dozen summer-program swim instructors at the old dank lung-burning indoor Municipal Pool, and the sunny warm pool at Cabrillo High School, where I once jumped off the high dive and lived to at least this moment to write about it.

And after my dad encouraged me. I don't remember him ever swimming with me, though I admit to not always paying attention. I learned after his death he was what we now call an open-water swimmer.

After all those, Terry Laughlin taught me.

Laughlin died late last month from cancer. He promoted a struggle-free form of swimming he called Total Immersion, and taught through books, DVDs and swim camps — at his headquarters in New Paltz, New York, and in community pools across the country and exotic locales beyond. Licensed coaches of his technique abound.

About 10 years ago, I decided to swim for exercise, because it would be good for — let's be honest — an old guy and his old joints. And somehow that plan has sustained, while all my other exercise resolutions before and since fizzled quickly.

I found some old swim trunks in a dresser drawer, rejoined my wife's gym, and got in the pool, day after day, marveling at my ability to stretch two lengths into 72, and to keep up the mile swim regularly.

Two things happened.
  1. My shoulders burned in pain.
  2. I decided I had always wanted to swim from Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay. Why I told myself this lie, and convinced myself of it, I don't know. But this suddenly lifetime goal had no chance with those burning shoulders.
I must learn to swim.

To the library I went, where I keep most of my books, and found a couple about swimming. One was Terry Laughlin's "Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster and Easier." I don't remember the other book, because Laughlin's description of his method caught me right away, describing me and my struggles wholly, and offering to break down my lack of method into a new one — one that would rely on my hips, not my shoulders, for propulsion.

I was hooked.

I don't think Laughlin had any proprietary control over his technique. In the intervening years, I have seen similar techniques under different names, from people selling their own swim camps and media. Experienced swimmers may also call it "front-quadrant" swimming, in which one arm doesn't complete the backward stroke until the other arm enters the water, at the same time that side's hip drives down into the water.

Total Immersion stresses a stress-free way of swimming, more efficient, using hips to move the body forward while it glides at a slant like the keel of a sailboat. Rather than kicking continuously, like you imagine swimmers in a race, Total Immersion swimmers kick only enough to turn over the hips.

Many open water swimmers, I learn, swim in somewhat the same way, even if they don't call it Total Immersion.

Laughlin, a frequent blogger, pointed to the record holding long-distance swimmer, Sun Yang of China, as the epitome of his technique. Watch him in the 1,500 meter race: Sun looks like he's taking a relaxing dip, and yet he is often several body lengths past his competition, which churns the water violently. Laughlin was quick to say he had nothing to do with teaching Sun this technique style.

Racing swimmers also call it a recovery swim — I have seen Olympian swimmers cool down after races using this very same deliberate front-quadrant style, kicking only enough to turn their hips.

The difference was: This is the book I happened to find, and Laughlin talked me through it well. I went through two editions of his book: One in which he denounced so-called "endless pools," which allow swimmers to swim in place through an artificial current; and the next edition in which he said such pools won't ruin your technique after all.

I even stepped off a place in my backyard in the ridiculous wish I would one day have my own such pool. I schlepped off to the gym pool instead.

At the same time I was learning how to be a schoolteacher — on the job, not recommended — I was learning how to swim. To the pool at 4:30 a.m., without witnesses, I would go through Laughlin's many steps of floating and gliding, up and down the pool, just tilting and kicking, then one arm extended and the other held out of the water, bent in the shape of a fin. Then plunging my fist into the water near the side of my face, as quietly as possible, no bubbles if possible, driving one hip down with one kick, then the other with another kick, sculling on my side. Finally, my open hand knifing in for a full stroke.

Then I'd go off to school, endure the day, fall asleep at my desk writing responses to students' journals, go home, get up at 4 and repeat.

In rare free time, I would watch YouTube® videos of Laughlin's instructors, who seemed to proliferate. One especially, named Shinji Takeuchi, becomes the water he swam in, so languid in form but racing down the pool, the barest of ripples around him. They kept me going.

It took a long time to practice and get used to Laughlin's steps, the length of that school year, until I could put it all together into the stroke he described. I could glide the length of a 25-yard pool in 10 strokes when it used to take me 21, and could swim a mile with ease. Leaving shoulders free of pain!

Today the pool. Tomorrow, Alcatraz!

Swimming open water was like learning to swim all over again. The logistics of finding water to swim in regularly, and swimmers to show me the way, consumed my time. I finally resigned to getting myself out of swim trunks and into body-squeezing jammers, and being OK in public about it.

Then I had to apply all I re-learned in the pool to a cold murky lake, where lane lines don't exist and distances are hard to judge, and beasties may lurk below and the water isn't still. That took even more time.

Having found a group of swimmers in the dead of winter, I also had to learn how to swim in cold water — which I have not regretted a whit. One fallout is that all the bilateral breathing I had learned in the pool atrophied. I'm guilty of the bad habit of breathing from one side after every two strokes; try though I might to breathe again from both sides, the cold water forces me to revert.

I'm OK with it.

And I'm OK where I am now. When I finally got the hang of Total Immersion in the open water, I resolved to join Masters swimming so I could qualify for races. I scratched that itch for a couple of years, then tired of it, realizing I have no desire or talent for racing, and I was spending money for something I could do for free, which is to swim in new waterways.

I still love to take part in some dear swim events — not races, but moving communities of swimmers  — such as the 24-hour swim relay at Aquatic Park in San Francisco, which Suzie Dods developed, and the Humboldt Bay Critter Crawl Sarah Green invented on the north coast. And I'd recommend the iconic Donner Lake swim to anyone; the lunch that awaits you after is worth the 2.7 mile trek across that mountain lake.

And I swam Alcatraz! And I swam from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge (well, St. Francis Yacht Club to AT&T Park, about the same distance, because whiteout fog made it unsafe to get in under the Golden Gate).

Along the way, I learned something surprising and disheartening — strangers who immediately deride and belittle Total Immersion. It blindsided me at first, when I'd be having a conversation about swimming with a fellow open water practitioner and unwittingly let slip I practice Total Immersion. The fellow swimmer would tell me right away how much they hate that technique, how no real swimmer would be caught doing it.

At first I'd defend it, but after a while I just shut up. It seemed silly, like I was a convert to a secret religion, taking care who I talked to about it. Occasionally I'd meet another who practice Total Immersion, and maybe we'd talk.

Now I don't even talk about it. I just swim. All I know is I can swim, and I can swim every day, and Total Immersion makes it possible.

I swim alone these days, having abandoned the pool for open water years ago. Don't pity me, it just is. I was part of a regular group for a couple of years. We pushed each other to swim longer and longer distances of our home lake, and explore other venues. We'd go to coffee after; we even exchanged Christmas gifts one year. But members of the group moved away and moved on; I went to a nineish-to-fiveish job, so I have to swim as early as possible before work, and not many would join me at that hour and place.

I see swimming groups on social media, and think how nice to be part of that; but in the rare event someone does join me early for a swim, it becomes a new thing to relearn, the stress of trying to keep up or keep track. I've gotten used to trekking alone up the lake. It's OK.

After a while, I stopped posting on a facebook®™ group for swimmers, simply because I had run out of new things to day about my swims. It is always beautiful, always dotted with Canada geese and mergansers and mallards and the rare otter, but it was like Groundhog Day with each swim.

I could have written about this year, the heavy rains filling Folsom Lake and forcing water managers to release huge amounts of water though Lake Natoma, where I swim, and down into the lower American River. For a couple of weeks this winter it was impossible to swim there, the tranquil waters having roiled into Class III rapids.

Even when the current slowed a bit, swimming was a challenge. One winter morning I got in and stayed near shore, to prevent being swept away if I strayed to the center. The main bridge ahead was about 100 yards away.

Against the current I crawled ahead, pebble width by pebble width (the water was unusually clear). I counted strokes: 2,450 strokes got me just past the main bridge. It took exactly 87 strokes to swim back to the boat landing.

Another time, shortly after, I got kicked out of the lake.

Getting in from the boat landing at the lower end of the lake — my ritual when I'm down there — I climbed up through strong muddy current. That was my mistake; I caught someone's attention and raised the alarm. A quarter-mile into my swim, I see a chase boat from the nearby aquatic center sidle up to me; it's one of those boats from which the coaches instruct the local rowing crews as they train on the lower lake.

"The lake is closed," the pilot told me from his bullhorn. "These currents are dangerous. You have to get out."

I was not gracious; I was angry. I wanted to say, "Where ya been? I do this all the time!" He just repeated his instructions.

"I'm swimming back!" I shouted. "Just don't go near the dam," the pilot said. Gee, you think?! The boat circled back to the aquatic center. I swam a few more strokes upstream, but the pilot was watching and circled back to escort me out of the lake.

I could have written about that. Or how the current only relented about two months ago to let me swim again to the Folsom Prison property, my favorite, a round trip of about three miles through a jagged ravine. Or how clear the water was all summer, the storm water having scoured the river bottom of the milfoil and water hyacinth that had choked the channel during drought years. I used to be lucky to see a fish a year when I begin swimming Lake Natoma. This summer I saw at least two fat trout a day, swimming along with me, just below.

The water has clouded up again since, back to its green murk.

Now I just swim. Though I haven't opened Terry Laughlin's book or looked at his DVDs in several years, I try to mind what he taught me. I try to dip my hands into the water quietly, without bubbles. I try to pick up the pace, to swim with easy speed. I have never figured out how this technique can make me swim fast, and I have my suspicions I would have to go to one of the swim camps to learn, and I wasn't in the position to do it.

Lately I practice picking up my pace for long distances, just fast enough before I start making bubbles with my hands. I tell my hips to drive down; I tell my shoulders to let my hips do the work. I lean down, trying to keep my body straight, as if through a tube, as Terry Laughlin taught.

And I swim and swim and swim. And I'm swimming still.

And I thank Terry Laughlin for that. May he rest his shoulder in peace.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


It's a hallowed, hollow anesthetized
"Save my own ass, screw these guys"
Smoke-and-mirror lockdown

"Bad Day," REM
The morning after the Supremely Lovely Day, one of the loveliest ever,
I regarded the
hollow orange.

It lay in the backyard of the house we had rented, at the base of the tree from which it had fallen. Since then a critter had carefully and completely devoured its fruit.

I'm guessing it was a possum. We had seen two of them slink along a concrete gutter at the back fence the morning of the Lovely Day. The homeowner noted in her rental instructions that it's OK to feed the gray neighborhood cat should it happen by. We joked that maybe the nearsighted homeowner only thinks they're a cat.

The orange rind remained full and round, even with a flap across its middle clipped away, the shape of a rawhide flap on a baseball. Though the other baseball flap is all that remained, the rind held its shape.

In this quiet moment, soft talking all around in the backyard, the rind made me think of my country, hollowed out steadily as I write. The thought of it dampened the afterglow of the Lovely Day, in which our son and his beautiful fiancée got married.

That Day overflowed with novel sensations. Useless as ever, I stayed off to the side and witnessed the pell-mell rush to complete the many last details, which had been dreamed and planned for more than a year.
  • The groom and his men using the rented home as their base, adjusting their tuxes, sliding into their patent-leather shoes, pouring into the limousine that would take them hilly hither and yon.
  • Some of the bridesmaids readying themselves at the home too, in glories of makeup and gown.
  • The beautiful bride in the beautiful cathedral, her home, standing next to her soon-to-be husband, both of them crowned, in the Russian Orthodox tradition. We are at once somber and wondering, sneaking glances high into the church's uninterrupted space.
Unseen from high above in the cathedral, a choir burst forth, their intertwining harmonies filling the immense cube of space, and seeming to set fire to the gold leaf in the iconography, the Bible stories, that adorned every surface.
  • At the reception at a magnate son's mansion-turned-wedding-venue, the newlyweds embraced all of us who came to witness, embraced the moment they had yearned for, embraced long into the night.

    Lou Seal, the San Francisco Giants mascot, made a surprise appearance, an amazing how-did-she-do-it? arranged by my new daughter-in-law. Photographs prove our son went wild with glee.
It was joyful and bewildering, committed now to memory, bright and fierce.

Much of the rest of this year, however, has been ashes.

They are away now, the new wife and husband. They are out of the country, on a new chapter of their adventure together. It's not really a secret where, though I don't feel like disclosing. I feel in a way I have helped spirit them away. They are somewhere safe — safe from their own country, now being eaten away, like the orange, but looking somehow whole.

Our other child is stateside, in the country. I wonder what our children think of this place now. I could not have imagined what it's become.

In sixth grade I penned a school report about our country taken over by Russia or its simulacrum, of a transplanting of our representative government by a dictatorship, of our freedoms instantaneously removed, and how that world looked. But in my literary device it was all a dream, because the country in which I had grown up, by its very rightness, would not so much as brook a takeover.

I have thought that way, more or less, through my life. Despite its egregious behavior at home and abroad — for all its many failings and sins — my country was still right, an experiment worth improving. Though it has faced threat and extinction many times, my country would hold and thrive.


This is real, and this is worse. With the Trump administration, this is a daily dismantling from within, a taking away, a making less.

I watch the daily creation and vilification of the Other. The Other are legion — women, blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, Dreamers, the poor, critics, opponents of their thoughts and actions, activists for constitutional rights. The environment. The world.

I watch denizens of the Trump swamp take power, deliberate and swift, as if with orders to make whatever Is within their power, suddenly Not. Whatever Was, Will Not Be any more, for its own sake. Step by step, agency by agency. I watch them fly about the world needlessly at enormous taxpayer expense, then lecture us against fraud and waste.

Hypocrisy made hip.

I watch Puerto Rico drown in a hurricane and debt and denigration, and then see President Trump say he's doing a terrific job.

It is not just blatant. It is the Age of Flagrancy.

What is not on purpose is instead capricious, the stuff of unthinking, dangerous whim.

I wake up each morning with a thought I hadn't entertained since I was an Air Force brat and lived in the Cold War's chill across the coastal valley from the missile base, and could see the rockets lift off, and knew it would be a first target in a nuclear strike:

Is this the day nuclear war begins? Is this the day? Is this?

Is this?

Reflexively, I think of how our leaders can protect us from the brink, and snap back to the real dread that the man in charge is the one pulling us to the brink.

I hit "angry" a lot on my facebook®™©, as if that will help.

Ashes flow in the air as I write, ashes from fires all around. Uncontrolled fire has destroyed whole neighborhoods where close relatives live in Northern California. Fire swept close to my childhood home two weeks ago in Southern California, where my sister still lives. Storms laid waste to Texas and Louisiana and Florida and Puerto Rico. A man beyond any understanding shot to death nearly five dozen people and wounded hundreds of others in Las Vegas.

But by all means, let us all denounce football players peacefully protesting racial injustice, and let the man who's supposed to lead us use is energy to confuse his followers that it's about disrespecting the flag.

My beloved San Francisco Giants finished one of their worst seasons this year. Three years removed from their third World Series win in five years, the Giants won 64 games but lost 98, tied for the worst record in baseball this season. They finished the season 40 games behind the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers. The Giants battled hard not to lose 100 games. Lou Seal had little to cheer about. Our children's wedding, and not much else.

Every team opens the season in first place, but the Giants looked good and strong, promising; fans could breathe easy with hope. In lightning speed just a few things happened here and there, and the talented team became a wheezing creature. Funny how little it really takes to derail a vaunted team.

Or a country.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Look over there!

This is all going one of two ways — and either way, you lose. Unless you can do something about it.

I still don't know what to do about it.

But I'm on fire to find out.

Either you believe:
  • God stopped the rain right before Donald Trump delivered his inaugural address Friday
  • Three to five million illegal votes were cast in the general election, depriving Donald Trump of a just popular vote victory in addition to his Electoral College win
  • God resumed the rain as Donald Trump finished his address
  • The inauguration was most viewed, best attended inauguration in the history of the tradition. Period.
  • You and I suffer an American carnage
None of these is true. All are proven false, even semantically. All are lies, repeated by Dread Pirate Trump and his parrots.

They are not even very important, though the continued lie about the illegal votes persists as much as it intrigues, because voter fraud hangs heavy in this election, but not in the way Trump declares.

If you believe all this obvious why-even-try lying, and more (such a firehose of lies these days!), then you and I lose. You are a frog boiling, and you don't know your end is near. I do, and I'm watching, more frantic than I was nine paragraphs ago to find out how to fight this insanity.

You are doing as egregious sycophant Lamar Smith told you, that you should get your new from Donald Trump directly, rather than from the news media. Mr. Smith is a Republican Congressman from Texas, and someone who makes decisions about science and press policy in Congress.

Your froggie life will have boiled away before you realize your lost jobs that Donald Trump said he'd rescue are not coming back, that they have already been lost to automation and shareholders' need for squeezing profits from your company.

Creating a new economy and new opportunities? Not so much. Easier to sell you on the old economy that has already long gone. Too bad for you.

Your health care will become tatters, not that it will matter to you, in your boiled state. But it matters to me and so many millions. Something really good is replacing Obamacare, you will have heard while dying. But nothing will replace it, nothing good anyway, not for you. Just as long as all traces of Obama are gone, that's what matters to Dread Pirate Donald and his Parrots, and everyone following him into the fallout shelter. They could rename it, erase Obama's credit, and fix the flaws while so many millions kept their coverage, and maybe it would even get better. But no. The powers that be don't care, and they hope you boil away before you get boiling mad about it.

By coincidence, the top 1 percent will get tax breaks with the repeal! Imagine the odds!

Either you believe this glorious fountain of the most obvious bullshit ever spewed — or you don't.

You still lose.

The Washington Post ran a postmortem feature on the White House Goings-On Saturday night, how Donald Trump returned from the last inaugural fete (probably a happy dance — for him, anyway — with his clearly distraught wife Melania), and was so enraged to see coverage of the women's marches across the globe, and the suggestion that his inaugural crowd didn't match up — so enraged he wasn't getting his due as the once and future king! — that he made his press secretary Sean Spicer rush out to the media in a cartoon suit and school them on what we now enshrine as "alternative facts."

As much as I respect the Post for its unrelenting examination of Trump and his "presidency" (hey, Trump got to do it with "intelligence!"), I will offer that it is way off in this assessment.

It's not the only medium calling out Donald Trump's narcissism, terrible temper, ego — even suggestions of mental illness — but I am suspicious.

Donald Trump knows exactly what he's doing. More plausibly, forces behind the curtains and doors in the Oval Office know what they're doing, especially how to work Donald Trump like a lever for their fascist, authoritarian aims. Trump knows what they're up to, and may be in it for the big payoff somewhere down the road.

A disarming opinion by a writer for the Caracas Chronicles says Donald Trump is like Hugo Chavez, the late totalitarian ruler who left Venezuelans with the oil-poor chaos they live under now, where people stand in line all day in hopes of toilet paper, and catch whatever grain spills from relief trucks while the military profit from the rest on the black market. Come to think of it, Hugo Chavez also said he was giving back Venezuela to the people.

So did supervillain Bane, in the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

Hugo Chavez was not stupid, writes Andrés Miguel Rondón, and belittling him and raging against him didn't take him down. Doing so just gave him room to mass-label his opponents, the people, as the enemy, and turn them into cartoons, and turn power against them.

Or even better, to ignore them — as our Republican power elite are doing right now to you and me, even you boiling frogs. None of the Republican leaders meeting with Trump yesterday seemed particularly perturbed by Donald Trump's voter fraud claims or the use of alternative facts. Mitch McConnell, honorable servant of the people, said there could be other sides to any argument. Two plus two could mean just about anything, you see.

Rondón suggested it's better that our leading opponents of Donald Trump use his weight against him, like a judo move, and be among the people, and be with the people, and truly know their concerns, and separate Donald Trump from the people in this way. To give America back to the people, truly, and not in some nationalist phrase that means its opposite.

That's a patient play, and maybe it's right. But I don't think we have time. I have a feeling this cluster bombing of bullshit, this widespread deployment of clampdowns on government agency communication and removal of climate change information, this renewing of oil pipelines, this closing borders to refugees from Muslim countries and threats of Muslim registry — this whirling hurricane of the most ridiculous, cartoonish lies — are a weapon against us.

All this is camouflaging some mad race Dread Pirate Donald and his puppet masters are embarking on, and they're frantic to get it done before we boiling frogs and their dry but doomed witnesses find out.

Investigating massive voting fraud! And finding out whatever Donald Trump wants to find out, so he can suppress voting further, but call it free and fair! Maybe trademark it! Publish lists of crimes by immigrants, and use it to restrict Muslim Americans! And that's just what we know of!

I will never forget John Steinbeck's opening line from The Moon is Down, a novelette of the Nazi capture of a Norwegian town. Never forget it since the day in 10th grade I first read it:

"By ten forty-five it was all over."

Watch the skies.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


So, it's Thursday morning, and Donald Trump hasn't revealed to us what he knows that no one else knows, about alleged hacking and manipulation of the U.S. election. Like he said he would.

"You'll find out Tuesday or Wednesday," Trump said Saturday at the New Year's Eve party he hosted at one of his resorts.

That was yesterday. And that was two days ago.

We still don't know. Because Trump doesn't know. He knows he doesn't know. Because Trump doesn't care. About anybody but Trump.

In two weeks he'll be our president. In name only.

"And I know a lot about hacking," Trump said at his party. "And hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else."

I thought, if nothing else, Trump would produce the guy from the bed in a bedroom somewhere — the guy Trump has repeatedly said could be as likely as Russia or China to have screwed with the election.

But what he produced — as you and I and everybody else, including Trump, have known all along — was nothing else.

Because is a liar. He is a liar and a manipulator, scaring hell out of citizens and corporations alike. Citizens united, indeed.

What Trump is NOT is the thing, above all, we need in our president. Someone to trust.

I can't believe anything he says.

Trump's lies are how he has defrauded businesses and voters, how he has put the leader of a foreign power over the integrity of our own intelligence sources and the intelligence of the American people, how he makes money from the office he will hold.

Mine isn't partisan griping; mine is a lament for human decency.

No need to retrace his transgressions. They are legion, half-baked fresh every day.

Which is why this transition looks like a takeover, looks like a takedown, smells like a breakdown.

So many people I know bid bitter goodbye to 2016, that it sucked, that it took with it too many of our most cherished celebrities.

Yes it did, but here comes 2017. The living are going to envy the dead.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


For all the daily sucker punches making America great today — the Kremlin collusion, the nepotism, the pay-for-play schemes from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the tweeted slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, all the blatant lies repeated into truths — I will miss a small noble thing most of all.

I will miss the president being presidential.

Barack Obama is presidential.

[This is not about his being president, which is another writing entirely. Though I fault President Obama for failings — notably public education — as I would any president as is my right as a citizen, I fault his foes far, far more, for their cruel hypocrisy against our president. They have twisted their blatant intransigence into something they think of as noble, and have managed to stick Obama with blame for their own failings.]

At times of tragedy and times of wonder, Barack Obama is one who speaks for our shared grief and awe. He stands at the podium, as he has done far too many times than is fair or acceptable, for all those times of massive crushing violence against innocents, and reminds us we are united in these states, in these times. We are together; at least we feel, in this gathered moment, that we are, even if we aren't really.

President Obama makes the words his own. Some are indeed his own, and some the eloquent choices of writers who know his voice, and he speaks them as if they and he are one fiber. He speaks his truth.

President George W. Bush also — sometimes — spoke with eloquence, but so woodenly you knew the words weren't his. Good for him, being wise enough to speak them, to know the weight of the words carefully chosen for him. George W. Bush reached his acme after 9/11, when he spoke through a megaphone, his arm around a firefighter, amid a pile of rubble that used to be the World Trade Center.

Bush let the firefighters and rescuers know that the nation stood with him. Had he also let the crowd know that his administration would soon use this horror as pretense to lead us into 15 years of misguided brutal war, that would have been refreshing and disarming in all meanings of the word.

Bill Clinton was almost too presidential in this regard, so at ease with words that he often overacted them, hammed over them. He had precedence in Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, who not only had the choice of the choicest words, but knew how to deliver, a master propagandist.

George H.W. Bush had a tough act to follow, and didn't very well. At least he read the words before him, stiff though they were, tumbling from his mouth.

Donald Trump is not presidential. Not in any meaning of the word.

Can you imagine him presiding at the next great national tragedy? Try to imagine Donald Trump speaking words of comfort and hope as we consider the aftermath.

He will have none to give, nor would he know how to give them; nor will he care to give them. He will instead leverage the moment for some new loss of liberty, some new broad brush of blame against some new group. He'll vindicate himself as having been correct about this tragedy — pick any tragedy, which he can sell as an I-told-you-so — and froth his followers into some new course of extreme action. For our protection, of course.

Trump will not speak with the poetry we will long to hear. He might have someone who can write that poetry, but he will not speak it. He will barely speak complete sentences, chopping them up with needless digressions, usually about his greatness and rightness.

Donald Trump is "interested in two things and two things only: Making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it," as Aaron Sorkin's movie president, Andrew Shepherd, said of his conservative arch-rival, in The American President. "That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections."

Donald Trump will have made the country a slow-motion wreck by then, but I will miss the charitable important act of a president being presidential. It is gone.

Now I tire of writing about Donald Trump, tire of drawing orange pieces of him, tire of paying attention to him, though I pay I must, to keep a wary eye.

As palliative, I instead repeat, for this season, my favorite moment from Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the instructive moment when Jacob Marley's ghost appears before Ebenezer Scrooge.*

Weighted down by the chains and change-boxes that mark his own selfishness in life, the ghost of Scrooge's business partner has come to warn Scrooge of the horrible burdens he too will suffer in the afterlife. Scrooge will forever drag the "ponderous" chains he has forged in life, if he continues to hole up in their counting house, attending to business rather than charity.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," Scrooge volunteered.

"Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” 

Remember the good, which once was, and can be again. 

*Watch Frank Finlay's version of Marley's ghost in the best version, with George C. Scott as Scrooge. Finlay's ghost is desperate and despairing, frighteningly frantic to make Scrooge see his errors.