Thursday, September 29, 2011

Believe it or not, it's just me*


That was my first thought when Robert Mott suggested Natomaniacs as an identity for our year 'round Lake Natoma swim group.

I didn't think it would work (at which point you might say I'm right). But Robert knows of which he speaks, and there was something in it that wouldn't shake its grip on me.

After a half-dozen half-realized doodles concentrating on letterforms, thinking the solution was purely typographic, I drew one fat N and that led me immediately to Aquaman and the old titling for that Silver Age comic superhero. So I riffed.

(The dude never really took off, by the way, did he? Was he Neptune or wasn't he? And if he was, why dumb it down with "Aquaman?" "Neptune" has a few centuries of brand loyalty and street cred, and is probably in the public domain …)

Why not? In our quixotic endeavor to swim the lake all year, we might as well cast ourselves as heroic, even superheroic. No one else will, surely. The green, green, green (did I mention green?) lake is our nemesis.

My son, the graphic designer home from college for a long weekend, said I might as well take it another step and riff off the DC Comics logo, thus "The Lake" gets its own badge.

I'm still kicking around ideas from actual crazies who swim with me but I welcome other ideas. Send 'em along.

* "Greatest American Hero" theme song, Mike Post ("Rockford Files!") and Stephen Geyer.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Don't look so sad, I know it's over

Third place in age group! Guess how many other pre-midlife
crisis men competed in the same age group!
It looks like the swimmer is fighting against the spin cycle
in an industrial washing machine here — not too
different from the chop off Point Richmond.
But life goes on, and this ol' world will keep on turning … *

The open-water swimming season in this north stretch of the state ended Sunday with the Second Annual Swim for Kids' Sake at Keller Beach off Point Richmond in the East Bay.

Don't cry for me, though it's nearly as sad as the hapless San Francisco Giants (not just hapless, but in serious hap hock when the next season begins) collapsing our collective dreams of a repeat world championship.

I'll keep swimming Lake Natoma — just because I choose to be crazy with some swim friends, and to improve gradually. But the races are over for the year. The Pacific Masters Swimming group, which sanctions the races, says that was it.

For the finale, the gray sky over San Francisco Bay billowed and puffed like a great parachute, hiding and revealing the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Mount Tamalpais and beyond. The jade water frothed and smoothed, frothed and smoothed, settling into a steady chop by the time the races began. 

I didn't want to swim. That's my usual approach to these events: I'll drive there but I won't swim; I'll tell my wife soon enough to thank her for coming out with me and try to reclaim the wasted day by going somewhere nearby to sightsee and relax. Then I decide to swim at least some of the race, and maybe see how it goes. In the end, as always, I take three deep breaths and swim the entire thing.

The organizers sent the two-milers off first. I'm smack dab in the center of the
picture, taking my own damn time getting started.
I felt strong in this event, compared to last month's Donner Lake race in which — because of high altitude or high ineptitude — I never felt right. When I finally finished Sunday, I glanced at the race clock: 56 minutes and 26 seconds for two miles. Phenomenal! That's less than a half-hour per mile — nearly 15 minutes faster than I hoped I could swim. Somehow the Underachiever's rhythmic stroke chant ("Do not drown, be not last, do not drown …") must have helped me.

A race volunteer politely beckoned me off the finish line and over to a portable shower, which spat warm water, down the beach.

"How fast did you go?" My wife asked. I looked back at the clock. It still posted 56 minutes, 26 seconds. For a moment, I thought the race officials had memorialized my unexpected finish.

"Oh, that clock's been broken for a while," my wife said.

Officially, I came in 1 hour, 4 minutes and 51 seconds and change, about five minutes faster than I figured — and that's with the leisurely refreshment break after an hour (the video for which is available but embarrassing).

But …

I finished third among men 45-49 without wetsuits!

Of course, my wife just hadda go ask the timekeeper THE question: "How many men 45-49 swam without wetsuits in the two mile?"

Of course, you know the answer:

I could have floundered and come in just under the two-hour limit, aggravating all the young lifeguards floating on paddleboards along the route, who probably had homework overdue on this blustery blue-gray morning on the coldish water. I could have walked onto the beach after the first mile, played a game of Frisbee, rolled around in the sand, enjoyed a second banana among the array of food and drink set aside specifically for the two-milers to keep them out of the path of the half-milers that would finish their race about the time we made our first lap. I could have done all that, and as long as I finished within the two-hour limit, still come in third among men 45-49 swimming the two-mile race in nothing by my black jammers.

Fast Dan (right) took second in his age group (and placed in his group
overall for the Pacific Masters Swimming open-water season), but
liked the third-place ribbon better and got it instead.
Even faster Kathy took second overall in the two-mile behind
a world-record long-distance swimmer.
(I'll spare you video of my swim stroke; it's textbook Total Immersion, but it … is … so … slow. Though it looks like I'm la-dee-dah'ing it all the way to the finish, in reality I was giving it all I had.)

It was a fitting and funny end to the season, which began with me hoping against hope for one or two open-water swims, and continues with me swimming almost every day in open water.

Along the way I've swum the lengths of Lake Natoma and Donner Lake, swum from Alcatraz, and more, and met many new friends who are less likely than land lubbers to die of boredom listening to me  ponder the open water.

I keep pretty fast company too: Kathy Morlan and Dan Winterrowd, with whom I swim at least twice a week in Natoma, each placed in the top three of their age group for the open-water season. You get a certain amount of points for every top finish for a certain number of sanctioned races; I don't know exactly how it works, because it's not a problem I expect to have. Kathy may likely place among the top overall women finishers.

Not bad.
Non-breaking news: Diana Nyad could not finish her second attempt swimming from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida. Two separate run-ins with Portuguese Man-of-War, (which look like jellyfish but turn out to be separate organisms working together that just look like jellyfish), ended Nyad's swim after swimming 92 of a planned 103 miles (just 11 miles left!) on Sunday. It was about the same time we had finished our Keller Beach race.

(Now her website says she was stung by a box jellyfish, supposedly the most venomous, capable to causing death — to humans? — in two to three minutes.)

Even having failed twice to make her goal, Nyad has twice done something amazing. She is a worthy inspiration for anyone, though she advocates specifically for older people (she is 62) to seek their adventure and not turn inward. By every measure and angle (perseverance, courage, commitment, strength, organization, planning, human spirit) it is a phenomenal feat. I get all of that; it's wonderful.

But Nyad undermines it all with a nauseating torrent of self-promotion and ham-handed public relations. Since her previous attempt, I have received a steady flow of watch-my-documentary-with-your-friends, watch-me-talk-to-you-about-my-thoughts-on-the-swim-a-week-after, etc. So much me-me-me has come from Nyad's fan page, that I shut my brain to it; which made it a startling surprise that she had begun another attempt.
She (or someone in her camp) at one point during the weekend wanted facebook followers to change their profile pictures to her Website logo as a show of support for her effort. Come again?

The silliest, sadly, was the facebook notice announcing the end of her swim, which is, as verbatim:
After more than 40 hours of swimming and two Portuguese Man-of-War stings, Diana Nyad decided to end her swim today at 11 a.m. From the water, she called out to her flotilla of four escort boats and addressed each of them in a strong voice. “The medical team said I should not go another two nights in the water and risk additional likely Man-of-War stings which could have a long term cumulative effect on my body. But for each of us, isn't life about determining your own finish line? This journey has always been about reaching your own other shore no matter what it is, and that dream continues.” Nyad swam more than 67 nautical miles. Steve Munatones, the independent observer for the International Swim Federation who is accompanying the expedition, noted that Portuguese Man-of-War stings have doomed many a marathon swimmer.
Nyad is a talker  — more like a jabberer — but did she really say all that, in corporate-speak, like it came off a clumsy news release? What was this, sermon on the surface? Did she address of the escort boats individually with the same strong-voiced soliloquy in succession, or gather the boats for one unlikely address?
I'm a fine one to talk, though, given you've gotten all the way down here in a blog about me, me, me … thanks for sticking with me!

* "For the Good Times," Kris Kristofferson

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Monsters inside me

Robert Mott, a high school classmate and graphic designer on the other coast, inspired this idea for my self-assigned project to name the group of stupids (me included) who want to swim chilly Lake Natoma year 'round.

He also recommended Lake Natomaniacs (germs of which are still bouncing about my brainpan) and the Lake Natoma Shrinkage Monitoring Team (with a nod, he says, to George Costanza).

I told him the guys in the bunch already suffer significant shrinkage since the fastest, by so far it's funny, is our friend Kathy Morlan.

The monsters of Robert's recommendation took hold of me right away. Of course, Loch Natoma, like Loch Ness! I immediately pictured the nebulous pictures of Nessie (and of Champ, the monster that feeds the imagination of New Yorkers and Vermonters and Canadians who share Lake Champlain), especially the indeterminate bumps above the surface of the water that follow the vague shape of what may be a head.

I turned the bumps into the synchronized strokes of swimmers (would that we were ever that close or that coordinated in the water!), and created a goggle-eyed monster.

(Which reminds me, did you know Mark Spitz won his seven gold medals during the 1972 Olympics swimming without goggles?! And the drag of a porn star's enormous mustache?! Boggling!)

The logo needed a lot of green to reflect the barely translucent Natoma waters.

I'm not sure about the letterforms, which I made up. I think they fight with the illustration, and with each other, as if half formed from a half-formed and caffeine-bereft brow. Or maybe it's the Berthold City typeface that needs to go. Hmm.

Another idea just dislodged from the unfurling folds of my brain is this (right), which is a bit more cerebral and therefore really, really dumb.

Who's got more ideas with which I can muck about?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let this be a lesson to you

Given that this blog is mostly self promotion (and self aggrandizement), I probably shouldn't tell this story.

OK, just this once.

The good news: Larry Carter has a sign above his martial arts business, and the sign is professional and distinctive and invites the curious and committed members alike to his new, clean well-lighted jujitsu dojo.

The bad news: I could have done better by Larry.

The better news: I'll probably get another chance to do so.

Larry moved his dojo out of a YMCA in the Sacramento area when the Y changed direction in its program offerings. He had been running it as an adjunct service of the Y, but now runs it as a full-out business. Around the corner from the Y, in a strip mall housing a dance academy, a hair salon and a Mexican chicken restaurant, Larry set up business.

He needed a sign.

After a lot of back-and-forth, showing Larry a variety of color options, and researching what might be the most visually engaging, we came up with this:

I can't claim much contribution beyond choosing the typeface (called Candara), with just a hint of serifs (the slightly widened ends of letters, such as this T) and enough swoopy wobbliness to feel warm and accessible. The bear is by another designer, unnamed, from a print shop (shoppe, as Larry, ever the Scot, spells it) and comes from the name of Larry's dojo, Nemuri Kuma, or sleeping bear.

Let sleeping bears lie, is the underlying message. A riled bear is bad news. A riled bear with jujitsu cred, moreso.

Larry had talked about redoing the logo, but I think it's an effective design which hasn't gotten enough exposure from the confines of the Y.

But the shallow sign would have made the bear hard to read. And forget about the kanji, the Japanese calligraphy for "sleeping bear." Though elegant, the kanji would have made the sign horribly busy, wasting time and space.

If we retained the business end of the bear, stated simply that this is a place for jujitsu and fitness, then the sign will have done the trick.

I built the file in Adobe Illustrator, sent it to the signmaker with whom had Larry contracted based on the signmaker's specifications, left my contact and urged he contact me with questions. Then a couple of days later, I drove by the place and saw the sign up:
Larry recently added the bear and the kanji for Nemuri Kuma near the entrance.
A tasteful touch, reinforcing the visuals. Still, the sign coulda been bigger, huh?
The vision of it made me wish for a Wayback Machine.

With it, I would have traveled back in time to do some things better for Larry's dojo.

I would have realized that time really wasn't of the essence, and we needn't have felt like we had to hurry, which made inhabit email like hermits.

In fact, we had more than enough time, and had I the common sense, I would have arranged to visit Larry on site. We would have looked at the fascia above the store and would have exclaimed, probably in eerie unison, "Wow, that's going to be a small sign for the long space above the dojo. We could go twice as big if the budget allowed."

But it didn't occur to Larry or me to wonder that; we both pictured the sign fitting the long space, without taking tape measure or time to consider certain realities.

It reminded me, just a painful bit, of the scene in This is Spinal Tap when the band's guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, rushes the order for a giant Stonehenge prop to use in Spinal Tap's big comeback, and realizes with horror that he used inch marks instead of foot marks in his order, and in place of the giant megalith the band imagined for its new rock anthem, an 18-inch model descends to the stage between the band members.

Stepping out of the Wayback Machine, I would have snapped pictures of the storefront, and would have realized then that the strip mall had been repainted since whenever it was photographed in Google Street View. Now the storefront is a reddish cream color — not really far removed from the yellow we had agreed would look best for the sign. Once installed, the sign very nearly blended into the stucco background.

And I would have insisted the signmaker show me a proof. You can see that the background behind the bear is white, and the sign I sent gives the bear a white outline, but the background is yellow. Not really a big deal, but not what Larry and I agreed to.

That brings up the biggest woulda/shoulda/coulda: True graphic designers I have known are nothing if not ├╝ber-sticklers for detail. They invented the word fastidious. They are beyond passionate for the right color, but also the correct dishware, the perfect brand (of anything) and the ultimate pairing of dinner and wine. They CARE! I know a graphic designer who yanked his phone out of the wall and threw it across his boss' office because he cared that someone on the other end missed a detail.

I'm not that passionate about producing graphic design. I love it, and the discipline needs it.

Good thing I'm not a true graphic designer. My son could design circles around me, and probably will.

I'm more of a go-with-the-flow guy in life. I get along to go along, as my dad used to say, which annoyed my mom and now annoys my wife.

It's not that I don't care about creating my best craft. I drive myself crazy over the details of an illustration, making it right. I drive others crazy by over-communicating every little factoid I think others should know. I make sure that the recipients of all my files have received them, and check back again and again to see if any questions or problems crop up, and how I can solve them with the least extra cost. I assume mistakes are mine, because it is almost always true.

But I'm not passionate about the graphic design process. I keep files as simple as possible to minimize points where production breaks down. Still, barring public embarrassment, I tend to live with the results. The white behind the bear, Larry decided, was something he could live with, and that was after making the signmaker reinstate the red squares; lose a battle, but win the war.

Banner templates for Larry's dojo when it was at the Y. They're gridded out
because Larry and another sensei, Greg Archer, wanted to paint them by hand.
Once I designed T-shirts for my son's Boy Scout troop as it prepared to head to summer camp. The front pocket art mimicked a stencil, and I set it askew the way you might see a slapdash label on a crate. The screenprinter thought it was a mistake and decided on her own to fix it. Rather than make it vertical, however, she set it even more askew so that it was almost, but not quite horizontal. In a word, idiotic. But the shirts were delivered, the camp was near — what was to be done? Except wear the stupid shirt, which I still do, and laugh.

Larry says once business grows he'll take the opportunity to make a new sign. I hope I'm there to help. I won't need the Wayback Machine; I'll take the lessons I've learned here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Works in progress, in more ways than one

At least one swim friend and I hope to make Lake Natoma our year-round pool.

For as long as we can stand it, Jim Morrill and I are trading in the rectangular, crystal clear, chlorinated, usually (too) warm, lane-lined pools of our recent past, for the wide open glassy water of Natoma, with its sycamore-choked shorelines.

If we manage to swim at Natoma into next February, we will have gone a full year in its green, cool water. That's a lot of progressively cold water between now and then, but I think we can make it.

Sometimes, of course, we'll concede a battle here and there, and succumb to the confines of a concrete swimming hole. Jim lives far from Natoma, and life will intervene, as it must, on his plans to swim the lake as frequently as he'd like. I know I have to cure myself of "terminal mediocrity" and will use the pool on occasion to practice swimming faster.

And come January, when the Natomas water temperature drops to 48 degrees or so, I might not be able to stay in for the usual 1.4 to 3 miles without a wetsuit; I'll swim until sanity lures me out, and go to the pool to finish the distance. We'll lose some battles but win the crusade, hitting the lake three or four times a week.

We want to commemorate our craziness by creating a "club," including a logo, the development of which you see here above.

We usually swim at the southwest end of the lake, known as Nimbus Flat, named after the dam that creates a lake of Natoma; hence the title of the logo at the top, Nimbus Flat Earth Society. You can tell by the other rough logo variations (right) that Natoma isn't really a natural lake at all, but the upper trunk of the American River, downstream from where the three forks of that river meet at what is now Folsom Lake. It's dammed above and below.

The uniformly calm water as a result makes it ideal for competitive rowing, and the lake plays host to collegiate crewing championships.

(You can also tell that this snaky lake doesn't fit conveniently into a logo.)

Natoma draws water off the bottom of Folsom, so it's cold most of the year, and swimmers and kayakers, particularly on the northern stretch of the lake, can feel a current, maybe 2 miles an hour tops.

Occasionally, we'll swim elsewhere on the lake, so maybe we want to identify with the entire lake, not just Nimbus Flat. Thus, Lake Natoma Knotheads or Nitwits.

Jim has swum from Nimbus to a place nearly midway at Willow Creek, a four mile round trip. I get in occasionally at the north east end of the lake at Negro Bar (named for African American gold seekers who built a settlement on the banks of the American River near Folsom), where the water is five to 10 degrees cooler than at Nimbus Flat, and swim under the new Folsom Bridge for about 1.3 miles.

We both have swum almost its entire length, 4.8 miles from Nimbus Flat to Rainbow Bridge. I've done it once, July 4 (video proof here); Jim and some of my swimming friends have done so several times.

When the year began I didn't think any of this possible. I thought I'd be lucky to get a few open water swims to get used to my Alcatraz swim in June, and spend the rest of the time in a pool. But as time went on, the reverse has happened. I was last in a pool in late June, about a week before the Alcatraz Sharkfest.

I welcome your suggestions for a good name for our lunatic group, something that will inspire me to create a logo, and I'll post them here. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

On 9/11

Mood level: Smoldering bright orange
for a while now …
No superlatives can ever contain the horror and shock and sadness and disbelief of Sept. 11, 2001 — though we all will try in many and varied ways as the tenth anniversary approaches this weekend.

In the news media, the effort has already begun in earnest. News anchors introduce the myriad angles on the anniversary, their chins pointed slightly lower to their chests, their eyebrows arranged just so, conveying a calculated look of somber observation.

But we never truly grieved that impossible horror, never got a chance, even though the innumerable tributes under way say that we did. The Bush administration, helped by the mainstream media's lack of backbone, co-opted that day as a symbol to make us afraid of one another.

Our leaders used it to incite two protracted, misguided and ruinous wars we still wage against dubious enemies, begun on the basis of outright lies. Instead of having nothing to fear but fear itself, we have accepted the offer of fear by itself, which at first did frighten us but now has dulled and callused us, enabling the puppet masters of big oil, banking and military industry to profit mightily in our torpor.

Mission accomplished.

All the while, we still send women and men into the teeth of these wars — and will still, for years — yet barely receive them when they return damaged or dead, and the nation has fragmented.

The redemption and healing that should have followed those terrible events have been tainted by what followed instead. I can't consume any of the 9/11 remembrances and never-before-heard audiotapes, can't stop for a moment to regard that day for its own sake, without immediately linking it to the bloody horror of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are WTF? funhouse-mirror countermeasures in search of phantom WMDs. It's impossible to mourn because it's impossible not to be angry — at this absurd sequence of events, at myself for succumbing to indifference and impotence.

Those people who fell from the World Trade Center towers to their doom — such nightmarish visions! — might as well have disappeared into the desert sands around Fallujah, for all that we got to consider their horror and loss, to themselves, their families, their employers, their communities. They became fodder for what I still believe is George W. Bush's intent to salvage the legacy of his father.

Since 9/11/2001, we have become Lord of the Flies, reduced to our baser selves. Psychiatrist Justin Frank of Washington, D.C. holds a similar view, that we have become babies, viewing the world in black and white and Us versus Them.

Opposition to our nation's response — to war, to torture, to degradation, to community-endorsed hatred of Muslims, even to this strange semantic casting of ourselves as The Homeland — means being unpatriotic.

And patriots, as we know through the doublespeaky Patriot Act, willingly give up many of our freedoms in exchange for what we want to think is our comfort and safety. Air traveler with a Middle Eastern kinda name? Sure, haul him away without benefit of a doubt, just so long as I can stop feeling the fear you keep waving in front of me.

You can trace all of this to obvious outcomes, such as a divided, uncompromising Congress, and to the accepted notion now that compromise is bad (when in fact compromise is the nature of action in a representative government).

You can trace it to our economic crisis, to jobs lost at a bewildering rate, to the banks that took our money to stay in business despite being criminally bad at it, to us no longer having the money to teach our children well or keep our bridges up and pay people to do all of that.

Hand in glove, you can trace it to the artless propaganda that divides us. I'm not so naive as to believe propaganda hasn't always bedeviled us, but it used to be sophisticated. Now it's an open wound. Even before an idea rises into public view, haters of that idea create words to kill it and replace it with new ideas that make us afraid.

Propagandists repeat that simple anti-idea ad infinitum until the idea wilts in its dense shadow. So we have "Obamacare," "death panels," and the anti-ideas that President Obama is a "socialist" with designs to ruin this country, that he is Muslim (with the presumption that this is a bad thing), that he is not a citizen, that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, and on and on. Just shouted and bellowed over and over again, without regard to merit, until the shouts and bellows become the new normal.

Tell lies often enough, and they become the truth. 

If not for the path down the rabbit hole that we took after 9/11, we wouldn't have the Tea Party, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Fox News. Hey, you say, those are all right-leaning people and entities! Don't you like right-wingers? Love 'em, actually. We should be a people of diverse ideas working toward the pursuit of happiness. I hate that they exist solely because of the artless propaganda that the fallout from 9/11 made fashionable.

It has begotten the abysmal meanness in which our governments still deny and delay needed medical care to those who suffered from environmental toxins as they rescued the people from the World Trade Center collapse.

I trace it farther, to reality TV shows where we get to watch people re-enact Lord of the Flies in all manner of novel ways — on supposedly deserted islands, fashion runways, celebrity kitchens, New Jersey, wherever the Kardashians are.

I trace it even to last week's Fox Sports' idea of a funny bit in which a reporter interviewed only Asian students — preferably students still learning English — from USC (because that's the entire student body, right?) to have them give a "good old-fashioned, all-American" welcome to two universities that had joined the expanded Pac 12 football conference. They talk funny, get it? Some of them don't even know what the Pac 12 is — hilarious, right? Because all of us normal people do, or should. It's football, and that's American, see? Those people are different from Us, so we get to mock them.

Fox canceled that show, saying it resulted from a "breakdown in our internal processes," which I suspect is doublespeak for, "We couldn't possibly have envisioned, in the current cultural climate, this could be offensive." As is the custom in public apologies these days, Fox apologized only to those who found offense, rather than for its base cruelty.

I'm looking for signs — glimmers — that we still may truly heal from 9/11/2001. Maybe this show's cancellation is one glimmer, that time will come when all divisions cease, and our tragedy against ourselves and the world dim in memory.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My long awaited theory on wine. You're welcome!

Artist's rendering of California's secret wine supply …
The bane of my extended family, I don't play cards, hang tough during small talk, or drink wine. You can imagine the joy I bring to family gatherings.

Of the last, I have heightened my unpopularity (or lowered my popularity further?) with a despised theory on wine, which is: It all comes from one massive tank, like the largest municipal water supply tank you can imagine, somewhere near Modesto, exact coordinates known to only to the wine industry. All of it, every drop of California wine, comes from that tank. Maybe Gallo controls it, maybe not.

(This theory as yet has gone unchallenged. I know what you're thinking: You can't prove a negative. Well, prove it!)

It's all white wine, by the way. The red wine results from dye, conveniently provided in color-matched packets.

One "vintage" of white wine
(or red, whatever), coming up …
During the night, all the wineries — big and small, with names like Leaping Lizard or Fauntleroy or Burnt Bramble or some such; all the wineries with histories written in warm tones about how the sweat and love and blessing of a certain microclimate and generational vision (leaving out the part about the hefty inheritance or absconded-with treasuries) of this or that family delivered this fine wine to your worthy table — back their boutique vans up to a hose bibb sticking out around the base of the tank.

Each winery has a hose bibb. I imagine a plaque — probably gold-plated — is affixed above each, engraved with the winery's name. Each winery pays according to its needed volume in wine product, and drives it back to its home place, and dumps the wine into its casks for distribution.

Back at the wineries, wine lovers cluster in for the distribution, bellied up to polished countertops, sampling each winery's "specialty." Through the power of suggestion (hypnosis, perhaps?), well-trained winery staff use buzzwords to impart the effect that each wine has a different flavor, is brim-full of nuance and pleasure.

Maybe this is all in my mind, a convoluted rationalization for explaining that all wine tastes the same. To me, anyway. Probably to everyone else too, but everyone else denies it. Instead, under the wine stewards' spell, they say they taste "notes" of currant and chocolate and blackberries and dirt and coffee and redemption and longing and success and who knows what else. Sometimes maybe wine grapes.

I don't get much kick from wine (or champagne). Mere alcohol, as is said, doesn't thrill me at all. But most around me indulge in its thrall.

Our son celebrated his 21st birthday belatedly last weekend with friends and family on a winetasting tour of the Amador region, in the Sierra foothills along Highway 49. They stood at those counters and pretended with the proprietors that this wine tastes different from that because this was bottled under a quarter moon and global pressures and regret, or lack thereof.

But the proprietor will know where the wine really came from, and now so will you.

I wandered around the wine tanks, where it's cool and smells sweetly of wine. I like the fragrance of  a cool cellar on a summer day; I enjoy the subterfuge on which each winery has splurged in order to make people believe they actually make their own wine. I like the token vineyards around the winery, the usually unbelievable, money-laden architecture of the wine tasting room, the unmatched views. Always the view; makes me wonder if winemaking isn't really all about prime real estate.

One winery encouraged our entourage outdoors, where a staff member brought out its "pourings." He described one wine as "smoky" and "jammy." Wineries are where real adjectives not only go to get stretched to the breaking point, but where some get born that never make it off the property. Jammy!

My wife held out her glass to me. "This guy said it tastes like blackberries, and I have to say, it really does!" I sipped.

"Tastes like every other wine to me." The party proceeded to ignore me again, clouded in their bliss.

I don't feel the same about beer. Beer certainly tastes different from brand to brand, and it all tastes … well, not awful exactly, but not something I look forward to drinking. The only time beer tastes good to me is right after mowing the lawn, and then it's a cheap beer, and then only a swig or two of it and after that finishing the beer feels like work. I feel like I'm chewing most other beers.

Plus, certain beers, like certain wines, "must" be drunk out of certain glasses that foment foaming or  oxygenate or imbue nobility. Or the glass must be held just so. Hm. Life's too short.

I tasted straight tequila last month for the first time, and actually laughed. "This tastes exactly like whisky," I said. As with whisky, I don't feel I'm drinking tequila so much as it feels like my body is quickly bypassing normal processes in order to ingest the alcohol.

Alcohol should taste like it does when I read about it. Doc in Cannery Row exclaimed, "Hah! There's nothing in the world like that first taste of beer!" I want beer to taste like whatever he's talking about. John Steinbeck even made a beer milkshake sound good, even though Doc finally struck up the nerve to order one in a diner (in Santa Maria, 30 miles from my hometown!) and decided it was terrible.

But alcohol never takes like I imagine. Maybe if it did I'd be in trouble.

The truth: Alcohol scares me a bit. I'm afraid of its effects on me. Yeah, goody two-shoes, born and raised, which even my mom regretted.

I don't think I'd be a mean drunk; my maternal grandfather, from the stories I was told, became mean and violent. The closest I've come is being a sarcastic drunk, which is unpleasant enough.

On the few occasions I saw my dad drunk (he was mourning with his best friend the cancer that had shaken and would soon kill his friend), he was sweet and cloying and smothering, weeping and waking me up early in the morning to tell me important things a nine-year-old is never going to understand.

I've never wanted to be that way, and I think maybe the germ of my wine theory is born in that.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Best seat in the house

Though I can’t shake the image of this swimmer knifing past me
at unbelievable speed, the swimmer found me easy to shake.
Imagine sitting right behind second base and watching a double play unfold in front of you. You’re so close, the players’ cleats kick red clay across your shins. So close, you can see the subtle, lightning exchange of ball and hand and glove that enable the second baseman and shortstop to nail down this out and still throw ahead of the runner churning toward first.

So close, you can see the players’ eyes shift from moment to miniscule moment, hear the snorts of their staccato breaths, feel the thunder of the play.

You do not hinder the action one jot. You're witness to what few others can see, where few can see it, but you're virtually invisible.

Open-water swim races are like that for me. I’m simultaneously participant and spectator, smack in the playing environment with the elite athletes of the sport, yet harmless to their goals. I’m privy to details of the swim that most shoreline spectators miss — the churn of bodies, the choking spray and chop, the warp of sensory deprivation, the fishy gasoline taste of lake water — but I’m not in the way, however close.

I’m an obstacle easily overcome; those elite swimmers need only swim past me. Most are way ahead of me before I even start most races, but in the latest race, the Hot August Chill 1-mile at Donner Lake last month, a group of young swimmers started five minutes after the adults, and most soon overtook me.

That group included this swimmer above, who must have been an older teenage boy, a young man, mostly chest and shoulders. He knifed past me well before the first buoy in the triangular course.

Breathing on my left side, I was able to watch the brief moment he boiled past me. In that moment, he moved fully in view; in the next he was gone. Somehow he propelled himself almost two of his body lengths with each stroke. The only reason I told friends on shore that he jetted just one body length per stroke is that I didn’t think anybody would believe the truth. I’ve felt compelled to draw that moment when I saw the swimmer in full, before he disappeared from view, and I’m trying to figure out how that was even possible.

More young swimmers soon followed, breezing past me like I was leaf litter on the water. They were part of USA Swimming, which as far as I can tell (the Web site is not crystal clear on this) is the sanctioning body for child and teen swimmers.
Breaking news! I interrupt this riveting post to tell you my swim friend,
Brad Schindler, on Aug. 29 completed a solo crossing of Tahoe: 22.5 miles in 11 hours, 26 minutes, two miles an hour. (For perspective, a strong backpacker traversing over level terrain can expect to move about two miles an hour.) It is a phenomenal feat capped by the fact that Brad popped out of the water and ran onto to the beach as if he had swum just a mile, not a mile plus 21 and change. He began at 12:28 from Camp Richardson on the south shore, and made a beeline to the Hyatt Beach pier at Incline Village on north shore.

Brad is only the 18th or 19th swimmer to cross (clear information is hard to get), and may be only the fifth or sixth to have crossed without a wetsuit. Though not the fastest, he was easily among the fastest finishers in a tradition that began in 1955 with sporadic challenges ever since.

Brad crossed at what is now considered the longest possible axis of the lake.
He inspired me to swim without a wetsuit, when I saw him swim 1.5 miles in the bone-chilling waters of Lake Natoma in February. As shaken as he was by the cold afterward, he looked like he was having fun, so I ditched the wetsuit and swam in the waters for longer periods until I got used to it, and haven't put the wetsuit on since. Brad also inspires me and many other swimmers to just keep swimming!
Adults have U.S. Masters Swimming, which sanctions most of these open-water swims and requires membership in order to participate. The name intimidates, even though I am a member and now realize it can’t be too masterful if it lets someone like me be a member, I’m still wary. Minimum requirement: Swim the length of a 25-yard pool.

As an outsider to the Masters (I’m “unattached” to any Masters swim club, mostly because clubs swim at pools which require fees which I don’t wanna pay), I can’t help but see it as a largely competitive organization. Sure, plodding swimmers like me are let in, but the races are to the swiftest — and the swift overrun the plodders.

My swim friends who are Masters would quickly reject that notion and insist that it’s a welcoming, nurturing organization; hell, I’m sure I’d become a faster swimmer by taking advantage of Masters coaches, but that gets back to my allergy to fees.

I accept that so many are going to swim so much faster than me. What else can I do? Some try to console me by saying that I’ve only been swimming in open water for a year, and success takes time. I agree with my new swim friend George, who says he revels in the fact that few people his age could swim the 2.7-mile length of Donner Lake, as we realized with both did earlier in the month. Swimming is about the journey more than the destination, he says.

But I can tell from the sheer power of these swimmers that time alone will not make me faster.

Three races took place at Hot August Chill. In addition to the 1-mile race I swam in, the event hosted a half-mile and 500-yard race. The latter is billed as a good way to introduce newcomers to open water, but it’s really a flat-out sprint.

Opting out of the other races gave me a chance to watch their finishes, and they were each the same. The top two finishers, men of renown in the open-water circuit around these parts, finished one-two within seconds of each other, well ahead of the next swimmers. My swim friend Kathy, extremely fast, came in early in the next knot of swimmers, each time competing against her long-time “nemesis.”

All of these, even the elite champions, swim purely for the participation, the satisfaction, the glory, maybe even acclaim from peers in a niche sport. It’s not for money, certainly, or even the occasional prize, which often comprises wetsuits, which most of these swimmers wouldn't want, anyway.

I can’t fathom swimming such distances, stroke for stroke over the entire course with someone fast as your equal, mere seconds apart; nor can I imagine having a nemesis against whom I’ve swum year after year, with whom I have traded victories over time.

But right in the wake of these champions, I get to witness it.