Thursday, October 27, 2011

I don't not hate Halloween

El Dia de Los Muertos, anyone?
OK, I began badly:

I don't not hate Halloween for me alone, an empty-nester approaching geezerhood. I love it for anyone else, most of all children, to whom the holiday should be returned. We adults have co-opted it, making it into other things for ourselves — things hyper- horrific or alcoholic — and some kind of blanched community benignancy for kids.

All you have to do is get stuck watching one of those tony Giada de Laurentiis/Martha Stewart/Today Show Umpteenth Hour TV cooking-and-craft programs this time of year to see that. What these latter-day homemakers do with dried apricots, black licorice whip and bittersweet chocolate chips should convince you how Halloween has become an adult product which we reconstituted and forced upon our spawn as safe and, therefore, uninteresting. The spawn on these particular shows didn't look like they were enjoying themselves.

{As for holidays in general, to quote my son —  in turn quoting from some pop-culture phenomenon to which I'm not privy — meh! Holidays just wash over me, I'm not sure why. Maybe it's their frequency. They seem to occur every year. I could throw my limited resources behind a moratorium on holidays. Give us a chance, perhaps, to appreciate them by their absence.

My sister said Halloween is her favorite because it's the only "free" holiday — free of conflict; free of a myriad conflicting shining expectations, and the realities that inevitably desecrate them all; free from guilt; free from the tension of having and not having, and not having enough; free from the press of religion.

All you have to do on Halloween, my sister said, is be someone else for a day, get goofy, party and eat candy.

Ironically, I think religion is what I'm missing from Halloween, the suggestion of the supernatural and other-worldliness; not the horror of zombies or monsters or even ghosts, but spiritual forces making overtures to us on the periphery of our consciousness. I think I'd enjoy being part of El Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, that mixture of Catholic and Aztec ritualistic tribute to dead ancestors. Its art certainly draws me … and check this out about La Catrina.}

I wouldn't get in the way of anyone's Halloween celebration, because I loved, loved, loved Halloween as a kid, my memories still so sharp:
  • How my dad once made me a costume by painting my old toy football helmet green and turning it into a space alien's head, including scavenged tin electrical pipe through two of the vents at the top for antennae, each antenna topped with a tiny flashlight bulb that lit when I pressed a button on a battery pack hidden somewhere in the otherwise store-bought costume. Lights may also have shown through holes in the mask. That's where my memory dims, for I don't recall exactly how I turned on the lights, nor do I want to remember that I may not have asked for the costume, or appreciated all my dad's work creating it, or that he may have cussed a black cloud putting it together …
  • How my next-door neighbor, Buddy, and I decided one year to keep our costumes a secret until the moment we met up for trick-or-treating, and how he showed up at my house to reveal that we were each dressed in drag. Now that I've finished writing that sentence, I realize it takes on a diametrically opposed and unintentioned nuance than it had 39 years ago. Back then it was just hilarious to us that by coincidence we had decided to dress as women. Photos are probably extant, and will begin showing up on the Internet, scuttling my political aspirations …
  • How Halloween afternoon always felt so different than the afternoon before or after. Sometimes in Lompoc, that afternoon came dead calm on the heels of a hot Santa Ana wind, which always stirred people to restlessness. Sometimes that day instead signaled the first crispness of fall; October on the Central Coast is usually the clearest, most comfortable month.

    The evening sky, burning orange to red and purple, more intensely than other skies on other nights, held weight and foreboding. The forest of scrub oak across from my house grew blacker against the scorched sky, hinting at the sinister somethings and the finality of matters, earthquakes and tidal waves and brushfires, all my dread obsessions.
  • How I tried frightening my sister with drawings of bats and Grim Reapers and headless horsemen, until my mom caught me …
  • How each Halloween brought closer to mind Agnes. Every town, I've come to realize, has an Agnes, though she goes by different names. Commonly she's Bloody Mary, so invoked in the latest of the Paranormal Activity movie franchise.

    (A facebook fan page dedicated to the collective childhood memories of people from my hometown includes several references to Agnes. It amazes me how we share such stories, and how, without the benefit of documentation, we all know our story.)

    Our Agnes haunts Harris Grade, a pass in the range of hills between Lompoc and a "shortcut" into Santa Maria inland, serpentined with a narrow deadly road (where several high school students died in separate accidents my junior year). Long, long ago — some say nearly a century ago — as we in Lompoc know, Agnes' car (or wagon?) overshot one of the hairpin turns, and she and her baby fell to their deaths over the steep dusty white embankment and into the chaparral below. (I've always imagined it took place in the 1940s or '50s, and it was a fiery death.) Now Agnes roams the grade, keening for her baby and grasping at cars, trying to push them over the side in her vain search.

    Or maybe the baby lived and Agnes can't find her, damned to eternal vigil? I don't know if an Agnes authority exists who can settle such details.

    Like Bloody Mary, Agnes will also appear if you call her name three times aloud in front of the mirror of a pitch-black bathroom. Always a dark bathroom. Why?

    I was never to find out if it was true, for I never dared say Agnes' name aloud even once in stark daylight, let alone three times in the dark.
In plain terms, I was a wuss. Still am. The only reason I know Paranormal Activity conjures Bloody Mary is because I saw it in the trailer on TV. I scare easily enough without going to the movies and having to pay for it. A lot of people love being scared, or seeing others scared, thus the plethora of Halloween horror movies. They're welcome to it, even the torture-porn of the Saw movie empire. Just don't invite me.

You can leave a little candy, though. Or a coupla sugar skulls. The fading relic of the kid still inside me needs nourishment.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Financial planning for dummy

These are the notes I took during a recent biennial meeting with our financial planner.

The horizontal figure at the top is an idea for yet another plan to brand the group of misfits who endeavor to swim cold Lake Natoma year 'round: I had been trying to get the feet right, and had panicked a bit that I forgot how to draw feet. No better moment than a financial planning meeting to solve such an urgent problem.

The leaf is from the giant plant in the corner of the financial planner's office, just behind the planner's left ear. You can also see the vestige of an airplane window that relates to a blog post from earlier this month, and a figure struggling out of the muck, which was just another unfinished idea for that same post. The hand with a raised finger is just that — I made a squiggle and wondered what it could become, which is the evolution of most of my doodles, beginning from somewhere in the bogs of my brain, advancing likewise.

Interspersed are actual words about the actual meeting for which I was sometimes present.

(By stark contrast that should surprise no one who knows us, my wife's notes are detailed, copious, lifesaving. They are checklisted throughout with action items, soon steadfastly acted upon because my wife makes sure it is so. 

Here I publicly acknowledge how amazing my wife is: Besides working so hard at her day job, a constantly demanding position at which she excels, she then comes home and works even harder to make sense of all we face. The difference between us is that she does not let life's complexities vex her. She stands with a sword in the face of the tsunami. Add to all that, she chooses to stay married to me.

Equally yoked, we are not.)

I'm a big fan of financial planning in principle. One shouldn't waste one's money, but think of his/her future and the future of his/her progeny. Spending bad! Saving good!!

But these meetings resemble something I call, "This is Your Inadequate Life! Featuring a Parade of Poorly-informed Decisions that Will Light You Down in Dishonor to the Latest Generation!"  Each such spectacle is sponsored by all the people who now possess our money.

These events don't look anything like the television commercials for financial planning firms, the tone of which is that clients state their wishes and dreams regarding the rest of their lives, and the financial planners harness their clients' money to turn dreams into reality. All smile.

Though I admire the restraint in most of these commercials (they don't so much portray clients  eventually sailing the seven seas in their retirement, or golfing 24/7 any more — those hoary chestnuts — as  show clients living their later years in dignity and some comfort, just not looking so worried), our meetings are still exceeding strange by comparison.

The running theme of our meetings is, "If only you made more money, I could do such great things for you with it. Darn!"

(Which is the same illogic that bankers lend you money only if you can show you don't need it, and the employers now only give jobs to people who already have them, because jobless people must just not be able to keep steady work.)

The secondary theme is, "Oh, but you make a little too much to take advantage of this particular strategy. Double darn! We'll just muddle through somehow."

The whole process began badly many years ago, when we sought the planner's consultation just as I had decided to go into business for myself as a freelancer. The TV commercials all seem to lionize financial planning clients who know what they want and blaze their own trails. They celebrate the independent spirit.

Not so here. The financial planner told me, "That's a bad idea. These are your prime money-making years, and you're not helping yourself. Is there any way you can go back to what you were doing?"

Gee, go back to the job that was killing me from the inside out? Hmmm, lemme think about it. What about instead we deal with what is, rather than wishing for better? I hate to conjure Donald Rumsfeld — ever — but it's like he almost said, "You go into life with the money you have — not the money you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Nor did it help that the planner used to send us holiday cards that featured photos of the planner's family on vacation on a discontiguous continent. Since I had not been overseas since I was an infant Air Force brat, and camp within California for almost all our vacations, I couldn't help but wonder on whose dime these adventures abroad were conducted.

So we muddle. We reveal our numbers, to our chagrin. They are paltry, undernourished numbers. Brittle-boned, they nonetheless underpin the planner's proposal for what to do with them, and based on what we can understand of the proposal, we make our plans from it. The paltry numbers become dollar figures, and are shuttled to this or that fund or bond, each of which promises a different benefit for a different dreamy purpose. It's tacit among all of us in the meeting that the numbers won't become those dreams, not fully, but doing nothing would be worse. On we muddle.

Don't pay attention to what the money's doing day to day, the financial planner usually tells us in parting. It's better to let the money take the long ride, and trust the fund managers to do their work. Set it, the planner says, and forget it.

Which we do. We're good at that part. So good, unfortunately, that the markets tanked while we were laissez-faire-ing all over our money, and we ended up having to pay extra to have the planner right our little ship.

Now we are engaged in preparations for a macabre race toward death, the object of which is to cache Mason jars of money along the race route that will sustain us until our dying day. We have picked out our ages of death — in other words, we decided based on anecdote and shoulder shrugging and no science or reason whatsoever, how long we'd probably live, and are planning our finances backward based on those expiration dates. What could be stranger?

Our plan now is to help our kids through college — yet another race that we're willing as patiently as we can to proceed. We want to do all we can to make sure they get the optimum education, no less and no more (the latter would be on them to pursue). In the process, we have begun talking about cutting ballast — smaller house, selling stuff, living leaner long-term — in order to reach that finish line and die debt free. Find me a financial planning commercial touting that scenario; you'll die trying.

My mom and dad, who died far sooner than I thought fair to them, managed to bestow that gesture upon their kids, living lean (though given their spare upbringing, still comfortably) and leaving a modest benefit, without burden.

We hope to do as least as much by our kids, dropping the ballast before they must take it out on their journeys into the world. Without grand plans for retirement (I'll probably work until I kick, though I'd like to help fulfill whatever my wife wants to do), I guess we'll plan our work and work this leaky plan.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street is all about

The snake has eaten its tail.

A writer for The Atlantic blogged this as he tried to figure out Occupy Wall Street:
It's wrong to create a mortgage-backed security filled with loans you know are going to fail so that you can sell it to a client who isn't aware that you sabotaged it by intentionally picking the misleadingly rated loans most likely to be defaulted upon.
Certainly not a sound bite. Hardly the clarion call to action. Clunky, heavy, messy, unclear without context. Nonetheless, a lightning rod, the crystallization of why Wall Street occupiers stand in parks and share their outrage in call-and-response human-microphone fashion.

And why we should be with them in the parks and on the streets of our cities.

The writer, Conor Friedersdorf, capture the essence of Occupy Wall Street in a stuffed-to-cracking nutshell.

People in control of the money — your money and mine — do egregiously illegal things on a global scale to take more of your and my money, and they get away with it; Friedersdorf in this case was talking about Goldman Sachs specifically, just one of many well-dressed players in a big song-and-dance softshoe atop your money.

They change the rules, get an official stamp from unwatched watchdogs, or don't even follow the rules, because nobody would know or care anyway. They won't get caught because no one's chasing them.

The people who should monitor what becomes of our money, and the people who control it, allow the illegal activity, or don't understand it, or profit by it too.

You and I don't know enough, maybe don't care enough, don't have power enough, to do anything about it, least of all among the people we elect to represent us, the monitors in this sad affair.

But it's hard not to see that the rich keep getting richer and our schools are getting worse and our neighborhoods are closing down business by business, and we and our neighbors are losing jobs.

And so it goes, the snake eating its tail, chewing the last bit of nourishment from whatever's left for us to produce, until it's all gone.

And we're tired of it.

No leaders emerge from the Occupy Wall Street and its spawn because the reasons for protest are as many and complex as the regulations and secret maneuverings that separate us from money and opportunity.

Someone in the movement read the Conor Friedersdorf's blog, put the sentence on a sign this week and trotted it around at the protests. Wall Street occupiers, using their human microphones, broadcast it to the crowd

The video hit the Internet, going viral. Friedersdorf then saw his own words on the sign, on the Internet, and wrote about it in his blog, confirming the point that he was making, that the movement is like the Internet itself — a people's force, undirected by a leader, unfocused, but fierce and by no means invalid, and not going anywhere real soon.

The snake eats its tail. And so it goes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The best $90 we ever spent

This has been better than an E ticket. Better than the Golden Ticket. This is my key to an adventurous new year.

(Yeah, it's another blather about open-water swimming, but I'll keep it short.)

This has already paid for itself, as the salespeople say, because it would have cost me $10 per visit to Nimbus Flat or any of the gateways into Folsom Lake; not to mention an infuriating set-to each time with some of the most miserable automated drive-up payment machines ever devised.

(Did the California State Parks system ever actually ask a human, in a vehicle, to test these before installation? The ones at Natoma an Folsom are not installed high enough, low enough or nearly close enough for any car to use, and requires a legerdemain of debit card handling not seen since Ricky Jay to operate. Getting this annual pass is worth just being able to drive right past these machines.)

We have been to both parks this year many, many, many times more than it cost me to buy this beautiful pass, as the scuffs and scrapes of this one shows. And we haven't even used it to get into many of the other state parks. That would be a delightful bonus, should we ever do that before this pass expires, especially since I have used it much more than my wife has gotten a chance.

No matter, though. When this pass expires, we'll get another one.

Annual park passes are like insurance policies for county and state and national parks. Many, like us, will use them far beyond their face value. Many more — most? — will under-use them, and then the parks people will have a little bit more cash flow with which to maintain the parks, restocking the toilet paper dispensers and paying park rangers' salaries, etc.

I encourage you to buy park passes wherever you are. They may compel you to get out to your parks more often and join the other stewards who will use the parks lest we lose them.  Buy passes for that, or for pure altruism, knowing our parks need the money.

California's parks are under serious threat; sure, you may say, shutting down a park is not really a loss; the land will return to nature. But a shuttered park suddenly becomes more vulnerable to a developer who wants to stretch his/her gated community out a few hundred subdivided lots, or some corporation to run its roads or water/power/oil pipes across the property because, heck, no one's using it.

While you're at it, buy a California Parks pass too, even if — especially if — you don't live close enough to use it. I thank you in advance.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Be kind to our wetsuited friends …

We kid because we love, and we hope our wetsuited swimming friends accept the jest.

Besides, we "skin" swimmers are outnumbered three to one, so we trust wetsuiters can take a joke.

(Hey, some of my best friends wear wetsuits. A wetsuit even hangs in my closet, and I won't be too proud to wear it if someday a body of water I want to swim threatens to freeze me out, literally.)

This image emerged from a running conversation a few of us skin swimmers have. The swimmer is modeled after one of our fastest compatriots, Kathy Morlan; she'd probably say that doesn't look like her, or her technique, at all.

I don't go so far as some in the larger open-water swimming community, who denounce wetsuits as sanctioned cheating in races. The suits streamline swimmers and enable them to float higher in the water without their having to make a special effort toward balancing their bodies along the surface.

Wetsuits are de rigueur among triathletes, though I just can't shake the notion that a fast skin swimmer would have an advantage transitioning out of the water and onto a bike. Many would surely ridicule such a notion.

I recognize some people simply can't swim without wetsuits, because of their physiology (low body fat, predominant muscle mass, all those facets about which I am jealous); conversely, I acknowledge my physiology allows me to tolerate cold water. One wetsuiter patted my stomach and called that advantage "bioprene." (See? Funny!! I can take a joke! Hahahahahahahahaha!!!!!)

I'd much rather a swimmer wear a wetsuit (heck, wear two!) than miss out on the adventure of slipping through open water.

But I'm guessing many more wetsuiters can go without if they try. Simple planning and precaution is all, plus dismissing the automatic urge to squeeze into the confining rubber suit. (The constriction and restricted movement moved me to peel off my wetsuit as soon as possible.)

Taking time to spend progressively longer periods in the cold water helps. I've met many accomplished swimmers whom the cold water defeats because the swimmers, with hubris, determine that it's simply a matter of jumping in and swimming. Cold trumps technique, speed, experience. Cold conquers.

But slipping into the water for longer and longer periods fools the water, or fools the body into thinking the water can't defeat it. At that point it's not even a matter of swimming, just of getting used to the cold.

Sipping hot electrolytes before the swim helps (hot, snot-green Gatorade is my choice!), and a hot drink afterward doesn't hurt, especially during the colder seasons. Layers of warm clothes afterward also help.

Wanna try it? I'll swim with you 'til you get used to it. See you out on the lake.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Here's to the crazy ones*

Shawn, drawn on a Mac …
For my 100th blog post, it's fitting to thank Steve Jobs, who made this blog possible.

Co-creator of Apple Inc., Steve Jobs died last week of pancreatic cancer.

(I know, I'm the opposite of news.)

The best descriptor for Jobs is "visionary." He dreamed and imagined what might be. Of course, many people do this, but Jobs was able to marshal minds and hearts, collecting other dreamers to turn his and their dreams into tools. Without which, it turns out, we cannot function. Or think we can't, anyway. 

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford states Jobs' place in the world even more strongly: He effected change around the world, from the way products look to the way people work.

Without such dreams made real, I would not be using an Apple iMac right now to get on the Internet and fashion this blog post. Or attaching this art, which I drew on a Mac.

I don't really admire Jobs for these manna, though. I'm a reluctant consumer of the products he caused to be; though I've owned several Mac computers, each one came to me only after it was absolutely necessary to part grievously with my money for it, after this computer broke irreparably or that one couldn't handle the ever-changing operating system requirements.

The first Apple I got was a clone (geez, remember those? Jobs, deposed early from the company he created, eventually returned and almost immediately killed the clones) from a freelance graphic designer who was moving on to an agency job. I got the computer because all I had was an electric typewriter, which was an infeasible tool for the graphic designer clients with whom I supplied copywriting. Back then I dragged the massive text file onto a floppy disk (one file per disk, usually), and drove it over to the client. Ah, so late 20th Century.

Since the graphic designers used Macs — a direct result of Jobs taking a calligraphy course after dropping out of college and resolving that his computers should accommodate multiple fonts — I got a Mac too, so all of our computers would speak the same language without hassles. When I started drawing on the Mac, I already had the technology that my clients could use. I have loved the Mac mostly because I didn't have to know how it works (that would have spelled the end of me); I just had to know that it works.

That's the limit of my Apple connection, though. One of my children has an iPhone (and wants the newest one, released the day before Steve Jobs died) and an iPad; another has a form of iPod; both have Mac Workbooks; my wife has another form of iPod which I don't think she uses. I have just the iMac on my desk in my office. I have iTunes — I upgrade the software dutifully, as the computer directs me, lest the computer retaliate on its own to impede my work — but I don't buy any music. I'm the same with major software, extremely disinclined to upgrade, and doing so only when clients finally can't read the files I'm exchanging.

I've evolved a disheveled frugality: Unless I absolutely need it, I go without. So many of these Apple products offer wonderful capabilities, many of which I hadn't imagined were necessary — my son has shown me! Look! — but so far I've managed to get through the day without them. I don't even know where my cell phone is most of the time. What a terrible candidate for Apple discipleship I am.

Though I love his chutzpah, this is a side of Steve Jobs I didn't much care for: Engineering hunger in us to replace one shiny cool bauble with another before the first has worn out, and to desire the next shiny bauble and its promises, long before it is even conceived.

Instead, I admire Jobs for that most maddeningly elegant of slogans his company once used: Think different. 

Elegant because that spirit is so inspiring. See it here, an unaired commercial featuring Jobs' own voice (the one broadcast used Richard Dreyfuss' voice). Maddening because it's so often a gift, not a practiced skill, to think different, to see what others do not, to see ahead, to see the way.

{Beautiful copywriting, by the way (see below …)}

Already among the world's most prominent different thinkers, Steve Jobs in death is now among the most revered.

He's at the top of a great heap of different thinkers, whom I encounter every day. People constantly amaze me for what they are able to do, the jobs they have that I didn't know even could be jobs, the places they traveled, the thoughts they think. So different, so far ahead of what I do and think. As the owner of a couple of books on the art of Disney animation, I am flummoxed to see the work of dozens of artists, churning out thousands and thousands of gorgeous concept drawings that no one but the films' art directors, and a few readers of these books, will ever see. They are fantastically beyond my ability to draw, and yet they're often postage-stamp sketches of color and amazing form and depth. Breathtakingly depressing.

When I heard of Jobs' death, my first thought popped out before I could choke it down: My God, he's only seven years older! What have I done?

You're right to say, "Yeah, what have you done?" Of course, you'd be just as right in saying, "Measure different."

I agonize like everyone else — in ways that vary as much as each of us are different — about what I've accomplished, what good influence I've made on anything, and what to do about that deficit now.

My son says I'm too hard on myself, which is my nature. When I measure different, I realize my children are becoming more and many splendored than I imagined — and I imagined much splendor. I'm married to my best friend, who saves me from myself every day. Steve Jobs is reported to have wanted a biography so that his children to learn about him, because Apple and Pixar and everything else had taken him away from his kids. What price global influence?

As far as the other stuff, I still have time, though I take heed the much-played commencement address Jobs delivered to Stanford University's graduating class of 2005. He told the graduates they don't have that much time.

"Death is very likely the single best invention of life," he said. "It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life," he continued. "Don't be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
He admonished the graduates in Stewart Brand's words, from the Whole Earth Catalog: Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
*"Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. (Think different.)" Apple commercial.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Inexorable march

Airlines need to devise a kind of periscope, allowing passengers in the middle seats to watch the world roll by below. Or closed-circuit television with multiple cameras mounted beneath the plane, from which passengers watching on those tiny TVs mounted into the seat backs could choose the bird's eye view from different camera angles.

Forget honey-roasted peanuts or a Bloody Mary — live coverage of the vast world flowing past is the in-flight amenity for which I'd pay dearly.

What's the point of flying, otherwise?

I mean, besides the feat of carrying people hundreds of miles, across time zones, across oceans and continents within a day — which still amazes me, a child of moon landings and Skylab and Bonneville salt flat land speed records.

Watching the land — watching the process of the land — is the whole point of riding in a plane.

Or should be, anyway. Excepting a few transcontinental flights as an infant Air Force brat — journeys I don't remember — I was 21 the first time I flew. The first thing I noticed, to extreme disappointment, is that the dessert-plate windows don't line up with the seats. Some passengers got their own windows, others the sliver of windowframe, still others nothing but the riveted width of wing.

As we exclaim nowadays, WTF?

Getting a window seat is a rigged lottery. The airline my family used to get to Billings, Mont. for a niece's wedding last weekend, appeared to use its window seats as a kind of first-class lounge. Frequent fliers got the window seats, complimentary drinks and free access to TV from those little screens. Which is absurd, because as one guy at the window next to me demonstrated, the chosen people can CLOSE THE WINDOW SHADE! and watch TV, as if any laugh-tracked sitcom could ever compete with the open window.

One seat away from the window, in the semi-dark, the newspaper too unwieldy to read, I was in a sensory deprivation chamber, except without whatever benefits you're supposed to get from being in a sensory deprivation chamber. Unless aching knees and low-grade gloom count.

Out of four separate flights to and from Billings, I got one chance at the window seat (and almost blew it by offering the window to a center-aisle passenger, who declined).

It was bliss to sit, chin in hand, watching every moment of flight.

So posed for 65 minutes, answers rose from the earth. Epiphanies, serendipities, reminders. Nothing earth-shaking. Nothing you don't already know. Altitude brings clarity, is all.

Time is chewing the earth to nothing. That much is plain. Its agents, wind and water, work at the land, cleaving it, pushing it over, pulling it down. They work the soft bits, relentlessly, until the hard bits collapse, eventually to succumb to the forces, doing what they do. We flew over steep river canyons whose mesas themselves carry fresh scars where water works to wear them into the river.

In the Beartooth Mountains west of Billings, where we were given permission to escape wedding planning for half a day, lay many entire slopes of scree, avalanches in wait, date uncertain but inevitable. I was one of Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians, beings who exist at all times simultaneously, and I was watching a great mountain in mid-extinction, knowing where it came from and where it was going.

The earth seeks the same level, or forces seek its sameness. Some astronomers say all the collected starlight — if it could be collected — would come out beige. Beige, like my personality much of the time.

We're all being chewed to nothing, and in that short trip by the window I realized (like I said, nothing new) that everything we do is a struggle against the inexorable march, a rising from the mud.

The wedding — whose brevity stupefied my son, given the days bridesmaids spent fitting dresses, getting expert hair styling and makeup as if a queen's court, the months and months deciding and cutting and folding and primping and putting up with — is such a struggle. Against sameness, against loneliness. Weddings are always the joining of many other diverse communities into a new community revolving around the two joined, whether or not all parties realize it; they are contracts in which the communities agree to support the wedded couple, and the couple agrees to be part of the communities as a new being. Weddings ignite remembrance in all other wedded members of the communities created for them, remembrance of how coming together is a struggle against sameness, a fight against the movement of time.

Swimming is such a struggle, against sloth, against the forces inducing me to entropy, even in the middle of my swim, when I want to stop but have gotten too far from shore. I am fighting against the water that fights against the land, that fights for smooth nothingness. I added Montana to the states in which I've swum open water, a little pondy lake that comprises Lake Elmo State Park just outside Billings; if I had given clear thought to the matter, I could have swum in Wyoming too, after we crossed Beartooth Mountain Pass and found many alpine lakes.

Up there my son and a nephew came within 15 feet of a family of mountain goats, unperturbed by the intrusion for the simple fact that in a flash the goats could flee, masters of the unseen footholds that keep them from tumbling down otherwise sheer rockface. The goats fight the forces that tear their mountains down, grain by grain, winter after spring after summer.

The earth erodes. We dance in defiance. We lose eventually, but it wastes our short time pondering inevitabilities. We define our time by the quality of our dance.

Dave Dravecky walked toward his flight as we walked out of the Sacramento airport on our return. He's impossible to miss: His left arm, including his shoulder, is missing, the sleeve of his shirt characteristically pinned and tucked in on itself.

San Francisco Giants fans know him as the All-Star lefty pitcher who came to the Giants from the Padres and who stabilized San Francisco's pitching staff. He helped the Giants to the playoffs in 1987, then the next year doctors found a tumor on Dravecky's arm and took out a large chunk of his shoulder muscles, and said he wouldn't pitch again. But he did come back in 1989, 10 months later, and won in his return. But in his next game the humerus bone that doctors had frozen to treat his cancer snapped (witnesses said it sounded like a gunshot crackling through the stadium), and doctors eventually had to remove his arm as the cancer returned.

Now Dave Dravecky travels as a Christian motivational speaker, talking to others about the state of their dances.

He was taking flight to who knows where … maybe he'll get a window seat, to remind himself what he's up against.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Iconic new work

I feel like a modern-day cave painter.

A California agency whose job is to make sure the state has the electrical power it needs, at the right time and price, asked me to develop icons to help tell the extremely complex story of how it does its job, and how to keep doing its job over the long haul.

For a project, a consultant for Cal ISO (short for Independent System Operator) decided that pictures — not a lot of text on PowerPoint slides — would describe the interrelationships between power sources, transmission, green technology and wise energy use that extends the energy supply.

The icons needed to tell the story at a glance.

This is the short story of their evolution.

The finished icons at left are the result. Though colorful, they're flat with minimal perspective — exactly what the consultant eventually wanted.

Sorta no and really NO!
In most illustration/design projects — in most of mine, anyway — the relationship with a client also includes latent forces usually undetected until the illustrator/designer makes the first parry. Thus, this was my first effort (Cal ISO and I agreed that I would forgo sketches and go straight to digital rendering, accounting for a short turnaround and a high need for clarity in a hurry):

The goal: To reduce the objects to their essence, the most primitive point at which they would still be understood.

The latent force — the consultant — revealed itself and said: Neither of them work but the top one is remotely close. It needs color. (Previous work for Cal ISO required strict adherence to a select green/blue palette, so I anticipated the agency would prefer something closer to monochromatic.) As for the bottom one, absolutely not.

Then the latent force became unavailable for a brief key time, and Cal ISO and I determined to make our best guess about what that force had in mind.

Originally, the illustration called for the icons to be arrayed around the state of California, and around an androgynous, color neutral consumer, whom readers would regard as benefiting from the array of power and transmission and technology. 
This time you've gone too far!
Very cold, still cold, warmer, warmer, got it.
The latent force returned and said: "No, no, no and no. Here are some illustrations we like. Do like these. Oh, and take out a bunch of the icons. And the outline of California. And the person." In short, icons: Symbols. Badges. Simple.

The car (left) went through its own odyssey, as I tried to reduce it to a sum of its parts (the original idea is that lightweight components reduce the energy burden) and then Cal ISO decided that the car itself was the message.

Digging and digging out of the rut of "cute as a button," I couldn't extricate the car out of some bad children's book version of a useless passenger vehicle.

Then the Cal ISO art director sent me reference that might help: My own illustration I created last year for the agency. You can see a detail of it, in pale greens and blues, next to the red car at the bottom, which was the final pick.