Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bloggity blog blog (glug! edition)

One thing leads to another, and suddenly I want to travel.

Never really did before. Since I was little, I was conditioned to the conclusion that travel means money, and money must always go toward other matters. Some naturally rebel against such a notion, and trot the globe like Anthony Bourdain with a tapeworm.

I just shrug. Not that I don't love a good trip — unexpected experiences, the open road, the soul restored — and when I go, I'd like to see more of the United States. Even that amounts to so many pipe dreams. How long my kids have only heard me tell of my childhood trip Glacier National Park …

But serious travel? Eh.

Now I'm beginning to change my mind. I blame blogs.

In quick time, blogs have evolved for me from Time Wasters for All Concerned, to Exercises in Self-Indulgence (or Self-Delusion, Self-Congratulation, certainly Self-Something), to Really Useful Chronicles of Information That Speak to Me (though still with a good dose of selfishness in their DNA).

My blog still tootles between the first and second stages, and for your patience in reading this, I am grateful.

Four (no wait, five) blogs in particular give me vivid windows into worlds I had not considered, worlds in which I want to swim. (Yeah, another open-water swimming post; about blogs, for god's sake! Did I mention my gratitude for your readership?)


Donal Buckley is the eponymous swimmer, who plies the Celtic Sea in the southeast of Ireland, along the Copper Coast of County Waterford.

Until stumbling upon Buckley's blog (subtitled "who dares swims"), it didn't occur to me that Irish people swim what surrounds them. Or swim much at all. Proof enough I need to get out more. Why wouldn't the Irish swim!? It's an island nation.

Not only swim, but swim fierce cold waters. Snooping the Internet trove of open-water swimming, I came across a site for races at Loch Ness (how cool!) that calls it "wild swimming" (cooler still!).

That's what Donal Buckley, a solo crosser of the English Channel, and his fellow swimmers (which he doesn't often have, hence "loneswimmer") face. My home lake is a tranquil pool by comparison, my adventures mild.

Much more than chronicle his lonely swims, Buckley describes all aspects of cold-water swimming. Some subjects, though abstract to me, draw me in with his engaging style. Other matters are so concrete and handy I can take them with me on my next swim. All are written with self-deprecation and surprise, as in this and this.

Analyzing the list of what comprises a good open-water swimming location, for example (from The Daily News of Open Water Swimming  and there really is enough for every day), Buckley applies the list (year-round conditions, parking availability. lifeguards and the like) to his own remote location.

Parking he has plenty. Lifeguards? "The one that visited on last summer called out Coast Guard Heli Rescue 117 for me after I’d been in the water about five minutes," he write. "Not missing lifeguards therefore."

Buckley covers injury, pool training, dryland training, nutrition, mental endurance — and even tangential nonsense — with deep scrutiny and an understandable pride for the hardiness of swimming his waters.

Vague notions of listening to Irish music in a pub, after a day's walk in green rolling hills, have weakly tempted me one day to visit Ireland. Now I'd like to swim once with Buckley at Guillamene,
and do all that other stuff too.

Loneswimmer.com is worth a visit, even if you don't swim.

Pacific Jules

Then I'd be off to New South Wales near Sydney in Australia, a place called Manly Beach, where Sunday only 57 swimmers gathered to swim in choppy water. I say "only" 57 because every morning of the year at least 100 swimmers join to swim at least 1,500 meters into the clear Tasman Sea.

It's summer in Manly, the water warm. Swimmers pass over reefs and, I'd have to guess, take with them a thorough knowledge of shark species; I've seen their pictures of sharks called dusky whalers below them, bottom feeders which I guess the swimmers know pose them no harm. I want to join them and swim closely to a shark expert.

A chance conversation with a friend in 2008 prompted a woman named Julie Isbill (the Pacific Jules in question, a long-distance swimmer and lifeguard trainer) to start an informal open-water swimming group. Friends brought friends, and in short time hundreds of swimmers of all ages and abilities have participated, wearing hot pink and black swim togs, under the name Bold & Beautiful.

The group offers a variety of clinics, from introduction to technique to triathlon, and badges for longer swims. "I can't tell you what grown-ups will do for a sew-on badge," Isbill said last week on Australia Day, when the local government named her Manly Sportsperson of the Year for creating Bold & Beautiful.

I think of this group every day I'm on Lake Natoma's shore, usually by myself like Donal Buckley, and twice a week with a crowd of one or two other foolishly consistent swim friends, and wonder how Bold & Beautiful brings so many to the sea every day. I want to go there and find out, and buy a hot pink Bold & Beautiful "costume" (as Aussies apparently call their swimwear). Though I'm disappointed the group offers only bikini briefs and not the longer legged jammers; I look odd enough in jammers.

I learned of Bold & Beautiful through a facebook group page called simply, "Did You Swim Today?" and at least one member posts each day about their maritime adventures. Through that page I've come to learn Irish swimmers jump off nearly every edge of that island. Many, many post from the United Kingdom, England mostly, braving the chill open waters though occasionally frequenting their "lidos" or outdoor pools. One woman in Stockholm swims regularly in near-freezing water.

Swim Avila

Closer to home is a blog so alluring in its simplicity. It's a recap of the usual Sunday swim a loose-knit group of swimmers called the Avila Dolphins make in a somewhat protected cove in San Luis Obispo County near Pismo Beach.

The Dolphins have been making this swim for at least 20 years. Scroll through the blog to Dec. 18, and you'll stroke my ego by reading that I got to join the group on that day (and got extra points for going without a wetsuit). Rob Dumouchel, one of the organizers I swam with, who also publishes his own comprehensive and instructive (and generously illustrated) blog, robaquatics.com, embodies the ethos I got from the swim and the group's blog — a laid-back, aren't-we-lucky-to-be-able-to-swim-such-beautiful-waters? group encouraging others to join.

The weekly posts make me jealous. I'm so close (seven hours with a bathroom break down Interstate 5), yet so far. But in this case I can confidently say I'll be back.

life after 615

The blog that spurred this blurb is "life after 615" written mostly for (rather than by) John Caughlin, a Half Moon Bay, Calif., swimmer severely injured in a boating accident last September after he completed the already dangerous Maui Channel 9.6-mile swim solo. He finished in six hours 15 minutes (hence the title) and was wading in an area boats weren't supposed to go, until one did. The boat somehow sucked Caughlin under, and the propeller sliced through both arms. Surgeons had to amputate his right arm above the elbow and, amazingly, reattached his left hand save for the thumb and forefinger.

I heard his story in passing and hadn't thought more about it, adding it to the mental pile of death and grief and horror everyone amasses in the daily consumption of news. It seemed several rings removed from my life. Until it came to the fore this week.

The "Did You Swim Today?" facebook group page included a video from "life after 615," in which John Caughlin last week swam in the pool for the first since the accident. An easy, graceful technique hides for a moment the fact that he is missing parts of limbs. He reaches the end of the pool with a big smile, testament to the bright spirits that others say he has shown throughout, as his bloggers write. The blog includes a way to donate to his recovery fund.

I'd like to swim with John wherever, just to thank him for his inspiration. I'm sure I'd fall behind quickly.

I'm not so sure swimming will ever really get me to any or all of these places; my wife, harboring more ardent desires to travel, would say, "Oh, now you want to go? To swim?!" But who knows? Swimming has taken me farther than I'd thought possible.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Medici, Part I: New work

A happy accident produced this final look:
I absent-mindedly turned the image to white
near a black background — et voila!
fake Wedgewood.
Greg Archer thinks different, thank goodness.

For one thing, he changed his last name when he married, so he and his new wife could share it without a lot of paperwork muss. "Archer" holds more potential for a business name, frankly, than Briski. (My apologies to all people Briski.)

When Greg created his bicycle repair business, having closed his bicycle accessories shop, The Rest Stop, Greg's married name provided oodles of potential. Oodles being a unit of measurement in the illustration profession.

I got to know Greg when he owned The Rest Stop ("Everything for the bicyclist but the bike") near midtown Sacramento, and needed design of promotional materials every few weeks.

(Here I thank Bob Dahlquist, bicyclist, amazing designer and really interesting person, for bringing me to Greg's attention.)

Greg Archer,
The Rest Stop was a store for lingering, for long talks between shoppers and the staff, sometimes about items for purchase. And it prided itself on those items, including a hard-to-find kind of rear-view mirror that bicyclists came from far away to fetch.

As more and more bicyclists fetched their hard-to-finds on the Internet, The Rest Stop, literally a brick-and-mortar store, became more and more difficult to sustain.

Arguably the least efficient or
intimidating warrior in any battle …
Thinking different, Greg closed the store and attended an intensive bike repair academy near the Rocky Mountains. He opened Archer Bicycle Repair on his return, grease up to his elbows in the one thing his old store didn't carry.

In short time, on completion of life adventures he and his wife are planning, Greg plans to take his business to someplace like Chicago, where they'll settle. Maybe sell bikes and accessories too. Who knows?

In the meantime, Greg wanted a logo for his new venture.

This isn't really new work, but it has become official recently by virtue of business cards, the first of his "business system" (letterhead, envelopes, marketing tools) to be printed.

After scratching with a pencil the itch of the usual ideas (gears and sprockets and chains and spokes for "bicycle," and bandages and booboos and crosses for "repair"), I attacked the Archer idea, and eventually came up with the guy at left.

It's silly, and that's probably why we decided it worked. He's a strange Moderne time traveler, having brought from the future a penny farthing and an aerodynamic helmet to wage medieval battle.

A penny farthing parked permanently outside Greg's bike accessories shop, and this was a nod toward it.

Greg soon decided the archer was lonely and needed a companion: Diana the Huntress was reborn on a beach cruiser, somewhat evocative of Art Deco. Just as improbable, hunting on a boardwalk somewhere.

The beginning of the end of the beginning …
The connective tissue for each was that they should be "old" logos, suggesting they've been found discarded and given new purpose, or that the business has thrived for a while. I thought of the "head badge," or metal label affixed to the front of my dad's old Raleigh bicycle he wheeled around air bases in England and California, when I put these together. They have English roots, however vestigial.

That became more apparent when I accidentally reversed Diana's image (turned it from black to white), and saw how much more vividly it popped from a dark background. Change the background to a certain blue, and Diana emerges like some icon a potter at the Wedgewood factory cooked up on his/her off time.

Diana made a tentative debut, but now the penny farthing guy is a secondary — maybe even tertiary — icon for Archer Bicycle Repair. Diana became the "It" girl. Only one person has complained about her brazen ways. Eh, Greg replied.

So why the hell did I call this post "My Medici?" It has to do with all the opportunities Greg has provided me over the years, the latest of which is a mermaid. It all started above, with a moon-eyed Pepto- Bismol®™©-pink dog. That's part II.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hollow condolences

My self-assigned mission as an editorial cartoonist back in the 20th Century was to change the world, to kick ass and take names. I wanted the powerful to weep in remorse, to repent and reform.

My reach, in other words, exceeded my grasp.

Every once in a rare while, I kowtowed. Thus, this 'toon.

The 49ers had just trounced the Denver Broncos 55-10 in the Super Bowl™®©.

I probably needed a break from revolutionary zeal and decided to play to the partisan (Stockton, Calif.) crowd, and anointed quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice in one of the lamer cliché go-tos for any cartoonist, The Creation of Adam in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

Maybe, just maybe, I probably thought. someone would see Joe and Jerry — someone who doesn't usually read the editorial page — and linger a bit before going elsewhere in The Stockton Record.

From sketch to finish, though, it felt false. I wasn't a fan of the 49ers at the time, and I'm not really now; in fact, during that Super Bowl™®©, I was hiking the quiet lonely streets of San Francisco with my wife and brother- and sister-in-law.

I stopped being a football fan during high school freshman football, a languid nanosecond after I discovered that with a certain vector of force, my knees can also bend sideways. (I'm squirming in my office chair just trying to type this sentence and fight off that memory.)

From then on, I couldn't see the point of football.

It was different when I was a kid and invincible. Football was everything. Those old NFL Films recaps of the week's games were like steroids to me. I'd stoke up on the John "The Voice of God" Facenda's baritone rumble as he narrated the highlights in poetic, patriotic gravity. Massive football players would break tackles and teeth in slow motion — always in slow motion — churning turf and sweat and steam as they galloped down field.

They ran to an odd mix of music from Sam Spence, either manic riffs on 1970s detective movie soundtracks, or martial drum- and horn-driven orchestral arrangements of folk music such as "Greensleeves" and "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?" (Really? Really.)

I'd run out to the front yard with my football and evade drunken sailors for open field-runs until sundown, humming that tune all the while. Football was cachet in the schoolyard. Catch a pass and the other boys deigned to accept you. Catch a touchdown pass and you became a hero. Intercept a pass for a touchdown, and you basked in simultaneous reverence and revulsion until recess was over.

When I was eight, I announced my plans to play professional football. When I was eight, my parents explained that the odds of me becoming a pro lay overwhelmingly against me, that careers get cut short and players become crippled in their early old age.

I still don't really know if my parents were dream killers, scared to death for me, or imbued with superheroic powers of practicality.

My team then was the San Francisco 49ers. Except John Brodie was the quarterback, and Gene Washington his main receiver, Ted Kwalick the tight end. And that exhausts my memory of that team, because just like every other kid, I never watched an entire game or followed the season. I wanted only to go out and play.

Except I remember that another wide receiver on the Minnesota Vikings was also named Gene Washington. "What were the chances?" I remember thinking. How weird for them, getting confused for one another at restaurants and so forth.

Funny what fascinates an eight-year-old.

And I got to go to a game with my dad. With the magic of the Internet, I now remember that it was Dec. 10, 1972 (I was in fifth grade), and my aunt's husband had given us the tickets to seats on the very top row under the lip of Candlestick Park's rim, which was designed to catch and hold the chill, whistling wind all game long. Somewhere down on the field, far far away, the 49ers shut out the Atlanta Falcons, 20-0.

The 49ers' glory years of Montana and Rice and Dwight Clark and Steve Young passed me by while I became interested in other things. I kept a weather eye out for the team this year because new coach Jim Harbaugh found a way to put a struggling quarterback, Alex Smith, into a new setup (don't ask me what it is; the terminology flummoxes me) and win their way to the playoffs. The team's last-minute win over the New Orleans Saints two weeks ago may go down as one of the best ever playoff games.

The 49ers lost last weekend to the Giants (no news to you), setting up a boring Super Bowl that's already set off orgasmic convulsions of delight for the East Coast entertainment empire.

The team had a Cinderella season. I might watch a game or two next year.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What does not kill me …

A funny thing happened on the way to the Craziest Thing I Have Ever Done (To Date): I stumbled upon the very people who inspired this stunt.

The mission: to swim in Lake Tahoe in mid-January in only a swimsuit, a couple of swim caps and goggles. Distance: Unknown. Survival: Uncertain. Who am I kidding? I was getting out at the slightest discomfort.

So why do it? It's tantamount to jumping off the roof of a house just because a friend did — and my mom's not around to hound me with rhertoric. Swim buddy Jim Morrill passed along news of a woman named Karen Rogers, who was attempting an "ice swim" in Tahoe.

Karen is an open-water celebrity in northern California, having swum the length of Lake Tahoe 21.5 miles, and from San Mateo Bridge to Golden Gate Bridge (about 14 miles), among others. The rough Pacific prevented her two years ago from trying to become the third person to swim more than 30 miles from the Farallones to the Golden Gate.

"Now, what have you done today?" Jim posted about Karen's ice swim on facebook. "That's the coolest thing ever."

So to speak.

"Let's go!" I answered, not really meaning it. In a perfect world, loads of time, nothing else to do, I'd go in a minute … ha ha! … lighthearted joking, you see.

Then Brad Schindler responded on facebook: "I'm ready. Let me know."


Brad and me in a moment of sanity. Photos courtesy of Nancy Turner.
Brad is an elite swimmer and, in the small world of open-water swimming, well known for his exploits. Only a couple of dozen people besides Karen have ever swum Lake Tahoe's 21.5-mile length without a wetsuit, and Brad's one of them. He completed the Maui Channel Swim, beating several relay teams while contending with 10-foot swells and tiger sharks.

He swims nearly three times faster than me. Not that he would include that in his curriculum vitae.

By contrast, Brad was not joking about swimming Tahoe in January.

Deciding it was something I would probably survive, we set a date (last Sunday), and my wife Nancy came along to fish our bodies out of the water and take us to the hospital or morgue as events warranted. We picked Sand Harbor, a state park on the north shore in Nevada, a tranquil beach nearly a mile long where we swam a couple of times over the summer.

On the way up to Tahoe, we joked how crazy we were, how any amount of time in the frosty water would be worth the trip.

Small world that it is, news got around that Karen Rogers was attempting an official "ice swim" at Tahoe that same Sunday, and that Jamie Patrick, an ultra-distance swimmer (and World Open Water Swimming Association 2011 Swimming Man of the Year), would be helping as part of her support team. Jamie swam the length of Tahoe twice in one go (nearly 44 miles) two summers ago, and last year swam 111 miles down the Sacramento River. In swimming, this is sort of like having Christian Bale and Kate Winslet wander into McDonalds while you order your burger. Brad tracked the news of the swim attempt on his smart phone while we drove. He knew everything about it except where the swim would take place.

Karen Rogers and Cathy Delneo start on their icy mile swim. Jamie Patrick (right)
helps document the attempt.
Descending from Truckee, we could see whitecaps on the lake even from a distance. Along the shoreline, we saw that those white caps tipped three-foot rollers beating up the beaches. Winds snapped flags to full attention.

Not the conditions I hoped for. Lake Natoma, my home pool, is usually glassy calm.

Sand Harbor looked raggedy like the ocean after a winter storm. If heavy waves had come in like this during the summer, lifeguards would have ordered swimmers out of the water.

We backtracked to an adjacent sheltered boat launch, where the water looked calmer, a low-level squall. We just needed a day pass, we told the lady in the kiosk, because we didn't have a boat. We were going swimming!

The lady looked out over the endless crest of waves in the wind, and then at us. "OK," she said.

Not a flinch. Not a "You're crazy!" Nothing.

We soon found out why. Out of 72 miles of coastline around Lake Tahoe, and dozens of beaches, Karen Rogers had chosen this place to try her ice swim. Crazy swimmers had already passed by the lady in her kiosk, and the novelty for her had worn off.

Four or five cars were already parked on the boat ramp, and people ran back and forth from the cars to the dock to the beach. One of the trucks had a logo on the tailgate, "The Tahoe 360," which is Jamie Patrick's next adventure this summer, swimming continuously along the lake's circumference.

Our unwise quest had suddenly become surreal. Brad didn't want this, mostly because he didn't want the swimmers to feel he was horning in on their endeavor. He tried to keep a low profile — these other elites would recognize him — and asked me to find out what course they had chosen, and see if we couldn't swim where we wouldn't be noticed.

A gift from my daughter … which might
explain so much.
The PR guy for the team told me Karen Rogers and Cathy Delneo were basically using the whole cove. We could waste an hour or more looking for another place to swim, or we could wait. As Jamie Patrick later told us, "This is the calmest water on the whole lake today."

So we waited and became the swimmers' groupies; Karen and Cathy found out Brad was there and came over to meet him. We also became witnesses in case anyone disputed the women's successful attempt.

Waiting presented problems, though, the least of which is that my carefully timed tall cup of hot electrolytes had gone to waste. Waiting gave us time to chew on the reality of what we were trying to do, and watch swimmers struggle with what we were attempting, disappearing at times in the deep troughs between waves. The team of handlers and documentarians and emergency medical technicians — especially that last bunch — made me question our endeavor.

Waiting also let the water temperature drop. It was 41 Fahrenheit when the swimmers began, and 39 when they finished their mile. Lake Natoma is between 47 and 48 — a huge difference, keenly felt.

First in! Also, first out!
After roughly 45 minutes, Karen and Cathy completed their official ice swim. In humanity's obsession to codify its obsessions, ice swimming is international and has rules. For example, the water has to be 41 degrees or lower, measured at specific depths within specific timeframes, and swimmers (wearing only a standard swimsuit, goggles and a silicone cap) must complete at least a mile. My favorite rule — swimmers may push objects, such as ice, out of their way.

Shouting and gesturing, the support team hustled the swimmers one by one off the beach, into towels, into blankets, out of their swim gear, into baggy sweatsuits, then into separate cars with the engines roaring heat full blast.

Our turn. Sigh.

Our meager support team mounded blankets and jackets and sweatshirts in a sunny spot near the dock. As I stripped down to my jammers, I noticed even the loose beach sand was cold.

I got into the lake quickly, as I usually do, to get a cold shock and soak down so I could recinch my suit back on shore. "Don't do that, with the wind chill …" Jamie Patrick tried to tell me. Eh — what did he know?

Brad swims …
In mid cinch, I realized Brad had already jumped in and attacked the water, in his style. I followed, but as always, I was far behind immediately. Suddenly our plans had gone from, "Let's hug the shoreline in case we have problems," and "If I'm in just five minutes, that'll be fine with me," to the makings of a challenge.

… and swims, a mile in the chill waters.
Brad's challenge became much, much different than mine. With a quiet demeanor that belies his big prizefighter frame, Brad is nonetheless fiercely competitive. Brad quietly grooved into the track the two swimmers had just left, churning between a collection of boulders to the boat launch docks. Eighteen lengths, we learned, comprised a mile.

My challenge was to make it to the rocks and back, if I could. My hands usually sting on my daily swims at Lake Natoma. But at 39 degrees, the water pressed into me like an iron maiden tipped with cactus spines. My hands and arms hurt immediately. Next my fingers swelled; perhaps the water in my fingers was expanding as it cooled; I don't know, but my fingers became squishy and painful.

Then my breath got only halfway in and out of my lungs. Cold? High altitude? I'm not sure.

My first thought seeing this pic is I looked like the sailor in Winslow Homer's
Gulf Stream, just as doomed.
The lake was beautiful and clear and majestic, as always, though impossible to enjoy. After two lengths, I walked back onto the beach, saw Brad still going, and tried returning to the water, hugging the shore as we planned. Two more lengths, 10 minutes later, and I got out, not sure where my tolerance threshold lay but not wanting to exceed it and become a victim.

In Lake Natoma my arms reach a numb stasis and I can keep swimming without problems, but I didn't know if my arms would comply in this cold, and wasn't going to chance finding out.

In short time, Nancy and I became Brad's support team as he swam length after length, attacking at the same pace. He'd swim back to the dock, redder and redder each time, give us the diver's hands-on-head signal that he was OK, and keep going.

After 30 minutes, Brad finished his mile (faster than the two official swimmers), and did what he notoriously does: Shiver violently. We packed a blanket on him, gave him hot liquids (which he spilled at first in convulsions), and got him to step out of the heated car to get dry clothes on before he got back into the sauna that was our Ford Focus.

A paddler escort for the two women hung back on shore, looking sidelong at Brad to see if he would need medical help.

Eventually the shaking subsided, and by the time we got to Truckee on the trip home and fueled up on McDonald's burgers, Brad was talking more and fidgeting less.

"We did it!" he'd say, every so often. Also, "Lake Natoma is not going to feel nearly as cold when we go in now."

Karen Rogers told us that if they had known Brad was going to stop by, they would have made him part of the endeavor. I don't doubt Brad will be back soon to make an official ice swim.

I'm not deterred, either. Maybe a mile is possible for me in that water. Karen advises acclimating in one-minute increments at that low temperature. I'm willing to make a few day trips to try. And I'd love to try the lake in winter when the water is smooth.

It's on my list of swimming accomplishments someday, but for now, I give Karen Rogers the last world, from Unofficialnetworks.com's coverage of her ice swimming: "The difference between stupidity and bravery is in the outcome."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Thus ends the Mark Trail, with an abrupt ker-thunk! — and with it my unhealthy obsession over this comic strip.

This is better than "42" as the answer to
the meaning of life! Way better!
Plus, talking
birds instead of talking dolphins.
I won't drag you down the jackrabbit hole anymore, because I have found the essence, the headwaters — the sine qua non  — of this decades-old serial strip. It is contained in one unexceptional panel in one of last week's unexceptional installations (left).

Except there ain't no maybe about it. In Mark Trail's world, it's Mark Trail's world — he will tell you what to do. What he says goes, for the birds of the air and beats of the field, and the human-like bipeds. He is right and just.

Mark Trail is God. Step aside a sec, Clapton.

How else to explain what goes on in the strip?

It just finished a five-month episode in which Mark Trail hunted for a story, found it, decided his public didn't need to read about it, and not only didn't write about it — despite mumbling about a good ending for the story he wouldn't write — but stole another reporter's materials so she couldn't write about it either.

Mark Trail told his editor about sabotaging his magazine and a competitor's hard work, and his editor said, essentially, "OK," and "Oh, well!" Mark told his wife, and his wife maligned the other reporter for trying to do her job. Silly other reporter!

In fact, Silly Other Reporter called Mark Trail after she discovered her photos missing, and confessed that he was right not to trust her. To do her job.

In the real world, reporters have written about troves of artifacts left by vanished civilizations, of ancient pristine cave paintings, and simply explained that the site needs to remain a secret to protect the findings from looters and vandals. See how easy that is?

Wise observation …
or is it? Better let
Mark Trail decide.
But Mark Trail's is not the real world. No sooner — no sooner! — does Mark return home to his wife and father-in-law and adopted son, does he get a phone call from an hunting guide friend who's best tracking dog has gone blind.

Mark immediately suggests visiting for a few days to see if he can help!

Back to the real world: What's a guy like Mark Trail going to do? Perform surgery? Heal the dog by faith (well, he is God …)? Explain the obvious or likely: "The dog has plenty of years and activity left, but he just won't be able to track?" Or explain the less obvious: "Don't worry. Blind dogs really can track game?" I don't even know if that's true.

(Turns out that's what the dog owner is now trying to convince Mark Trail about.)

And what does Mark Trail's chicken-liver family think of him leaping from one faraway dead-end deed to another? This one won't even net him a story, and it's been five months at least since he apparently put food on the table for the folks back home.

Why can't the hunting guide figure out stuff on his own? What does he Mark Trail for? The guide leads people out into the woods in the dark, with guns, for f*@# sake; I think he can handle situations without help.

But here Mark comes, to save the day, to save the world, and the hunting guide friend sure is grateful.

It is right and just.

If this was just fodder for sardonic snarking, it would be harmless. But Mark Trail is a mascot for conservation and environmental protection; maybe his star has dimmed since the 1970s, when throwing trash on the ground was something you actually had to tell people not to do.

For better or worse, The Sacramento Bee doesn't carry Mark Trail's Sunday strip, which deviates from the daily storyline to impart lessons and tidbits about wildlife and conservation management. A distinctive, if not popular, niche in comics.

I'm going to say Bee readers are worse off, because the Sunday strips are usually a showcase for what the Mark Trail artist(s) do best, capture wildlife vividly and accurately in pen and ink and CMYK separations. It's people, including the head Person, Mark Trail, that the artists have trouble with, inside and out.

To the extent anybody still pays attention to comics, and Mark Trail in particular — and I'm talking to you impressionable sprouts out there in Blogland — he/she can come away with a twisted view of the world. Well, not Mark Trail's world …

Here I part ways and find another trail.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The road taken

Our card: I'm afraid that in my bumbling I will
tatter, besmirch or even lose this artifact, so finally
I committed it to digital posterity.
Long ago, burning with creative spirit, uncertain of our future paths, and deciding we might as well just blaze our own — in fact,  the same place where my own children are now — my college classmate and former roomie David Middlecamp and I launched a freelance business.

Maybe launched overstates it. Fervently dreamed about and planned with bursts of enthusiasm is closer.

"Questing Unlimited" comes courtesy of the courtly days of King Arthur, when the knights of his and other realms were always gallivanting about the countryside in pursuit of adventure.

From a piece David shot for The Mustang Daily
about a San Luis Obispo ranching family,
demonstrating his excellence as a photographer.
This is old school: He produced these postcards
himself, on special cards with photo paper fronts.
(Now that I think of it, the quests were merely tools for Sir Thomas Malory and other writers of the Arthurian legend to plot stories; kind of like when the cell phones ring on any one in the Law & Order franchise episodes just when the chase grows stale.)

Somewhere in my readings of the Arthur legend (perhaps in John Steinbeck's preempted attempt to retell the Malory version, The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights), I think I learned that for a quest to hold meaning, it must go in a great circuit, never to cover the same ground.

The advice, whether from those pages or from my fevered brow, informs me still. I loathe out-and-back backpacking trips (oh, I'll make them, if it means not going at all), and tend to drive in great, gas-wasting loops on errands.

So would it be for us and our budding business.

David and I wanted unfettered wandering, making stories of our serendipity. I wanted to be like Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, except I would be discovering what he was re-discovering. I'm speaking for David — and this is the first of many invitations for him to fill in the gaps or correct me — but I imagine likewise that he wanted to chronicle our travels and travails much as Dorothea Lange did.

We had already begun training, and maybe got the idea for it, by teaming up on feature stories for The Mustang Daily, Cal Poly's student-run daily newspaper.

Our feature stories filled our own craving to move beyond Cal Poly's and San Luis Obispo's geographical borders, and the newspaper's daily need for copy. As long as we could sell even the weakest link to Cal Poly — whether our subjects had graduated from there or visited or merely heard about the campus — we could do the story for the college newspaper. We didn't leave the county, but imagined Questing Unlimited to be our ticket hither and yon.

David with all those postcards, all those
hoped-for assignments, set out to dry.
Then, life got in the way, or I let it get in the way. I got an internship at my hometown newspaper the summer after we hatched our dream. David, in San Luis Obispo, took the burden of nurturing the business — more likely, I let my end drop for David to pick up and carry my share with his — and continued researching story ideas.

When last we worked on the business together, we were just beginning to develop queries, which are story outlines that we'd pitch to magazines whose contacts we had yet to gather. Or maybe I have forgotten that David had already amassed editors' and publishers' names.

(I just discovered a stash of captioned photos David produced as part of a portfolio we'd send to editors seeking writing assignments. The photos are from a feature we wrote about Janita and Robert Baker, who make guitars and mountain dulcimers from their rural home in northern San Luis Obispo County. Wonderful, engaging, talented people, the Bakers were exactly the kind of subjects we wanted to chronicle; I'm happy to find the Bakers are still doing their thing at Blue Lion Dulcimers & Guitars.)

We had our marketing campaign almost ready to unleash upon the world, with a logo made the hard way.

To build the logo today, I'd probably buy the needed typeface from a Website, import it into Adobe Illustrator, type out the words I wanted, convert the word to shapes, then manipulate the shapes at will on my computer screen. Click, tap, click. It sounds involved but it might take an hour tops, no muss, no fuss.

Not so way back then. If you wanted anything even remotely exotic in type treatment, you went to Letraset, and any newspaper or graphic design shop would have piles of these transparent plastic sheets of letterforms lying in storage, usually with just a handful of letters removed from the sheet. I'd either transfer letterforms by burnishing them onto a surface, or cut the letterforms and painstakingly expose a thin adhesive backing. Want the typeface bigger? Smaller? Assemble the type and then throw it into the overhead camera for enlargement.

I spliced "Questing" across the bottom with an X-acto knife, then used thin 2-point black adhesive tape to restore the letterforms into complete shapes. In this case, the job took multiple precise angled cuts. Just before I'd get the last tiny end of the tape to stick in place, my shoulders would invariably kink up, or the tape would stick to my fingers and pull the whole job askew — death of a project by 106 cuts — or the letterform I needed, the only one left on the sheet, would get stuck on the bottom of my shoe. Good times. Good times.

We must have convinced someone over in the print side of The Mustang Daily into typesetting "Unlimited" and the contact information for us. David might know who printed our business cards for us.

That's as far as our quest went. David and I pursued divergent journalism paths, though we went on to lead roughly parallel lives. David's career explored depth over breadth, nourishing his roots in San Luis Obispo County. He became the envy of most Cal Poly grads — one of the few to find a lifelong excuse to stay and thrive in beautiful San Luis Obispo, as an excellent photographer and storyteller and historian/archivist for The Tribune.

He's even a gentleman farmer, nourishing olive roots on family land. Someday I'll write about the day long ago when I "helped" him buck hay.

I'm lucky to have been able to reconnect with David and his family, and talk about now and then.

Officially in mid-life or past it, I can't help but think about then these days. My wife joined me in wondering: What if we had pursued our quest? The words "hungry" and "hardscrabble" come to mind, but also "happy" and "simple" and "who knows?" It might have been a precarious existence, likely requiring us to invest our dreams from other sources, like parttime jobs. It might not have endeared me to my in-laws or pleased my parents, because Nancy and I were planning marry soon; it might be why I didn't give the idea the time and energy it needed. I was afraid.

Certainly I missed out on the people we would have met, missed the stories they would have given us, missed some countryside I have yet to see, missed the memories of epic trips on roads less traveled by, that might have made all the difference.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Too much information

Don't shoot me, I'm only the guy who can't get disturbing images out of my head without drawing them.

Swim friend Jim Morrill planted the image in my head to begin with.

Swim friend Stacy Purcell suggested we gather data about our cold-water swims in Lake Natoma: Air and water temperature, time and duration of swims, and body temperature before and after.

We want to gather sufficient data to determine trends.

One possible trend: We get cold. (Alert the National Science Foundation! This could be Grantapalooza!) My body temperature drops about five degrees from start to finish after about an hour in water that hovers between 49 and 51 degrees.

I'm no scientist, but I don't think that's accurate. We're concerned the readings are false because we take our temperature by mouth. A lot of cold water swirls in our mouths over nearly 1.5 miles of swimming.

"You know what you need to do?" said Jim, describing in detail exactly where we could stick our thermometers — while we're swimming. He might even have said, "I'd pay to see that." I can't remember exactly.

(Jim has since bought his own thermometer; I suggested he be the "control" in this experiment, while Stacy and I continue taking our temperature orally …)

Thus this inspired logo, to join the sordid assortment of other logos to brand our nefarious adventures.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Thank you, Joel Pett and The Sacramento Bee

The Sacramento Bee last Sunday asked Joel Pett, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist for the Lexington Herald Leader, to update his cartoon chronicling the history of the U.S. war with Iraq. Pett, one of the precious few cartoonists who try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, drew the cartoon in 2007, and changed the final panels last month to mark U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.

Enjoy gazing, like I have, at all the connections, twisted and never-ending and otherwise.

So it goes.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New year, no water

In higher times: A mid-June Sunday. The lake would rise even higher
before summer was over. Photo courtesy of Thomas Petrie.
After greeting the new year with a swim at nearby Lake Natoma, I drove with my wife to Beal's Point on Folsom Lake.

I knew what I'd find because I'd been by two days before: Precious little. The water in the cove north of the point is almost gone, reduced to a muddy pond. It was like sucking on a sore tooth to go out there, inexplicably needing to revisit the pain.

Not long ago, we used to swim that cove, which is on the west side of the lake. It was about 1.3 miles round trip across the cove, to a bushy round oak tree on the opposite shore and back. We swam it in smooth water and in late-winter rain when storms had churned the surface into two-foot waves. We swam it when only a few runners up on a levee would yell down that we were crazy, and in the height of summer when ski boats would carve close by at high speed on purpose.

New Year's Day 2012: The whitish rocks on the levee behind were
under water in June, as were the trees, right up to the leaves.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Turner.
Now all that water, probably 30 feet at the deepest, is gone. The giant orange buoy which often served as a rest stop 500 yards out from the shore now lies impotently near the remaining puddle, at least another 400 yards away from where it used to float. I'm trying to figure out how the buoy, anchored to the bottom, moved so far away.

The bottom of the cove is a moonscape of dry, dry decomposed granite with a few knobs of granite sticking out here and there. Except for a small grove of trees that bear the misfortune of being flooded out winter through summer, no flora flourishes on this landscape. Almost no trash, even. I found a disposable lighter and an old juice box on one trek to the bottom of the cove, and that was it. I imagine most open-water swimmers wonder, even a little bit, what lurks below them in the opaque depths as they crawl along the surface. The answer in this case is, nothing.

This barren condition is normal, sort of; the emptiness largely artificial. Folsom Lake is a giant tool for water and flood control, a human-made reservoir collecting the snowmelt as it flows out of the Sierra into the three forks of the American River. From there, the water is let out into Lake Natoma (really the trunk of the American River) and held for release as needed into the American River, which flows into the Sacramento and out into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, then to the San Pablo Bay, then San Francisco Bay, and out to the ocean.

People like me spend disposable income and expend tremendous amounts of fuel to tow skiers on Folsom Lake, camp and hike around it, pull fish from it and swim in it.

I'd be about 20 feet under water, were there any water, right here.
The blue line marks the route we take to the tree in the distance.
The dots near the horizon on the left are horses and riders.
après-swim ensemble, by the way, is all the rage in these parts.
My technique is flawless; though it looks like I've fallen and can't get up.
The people in charge of controlling the water supply had drained some of the lake to make way for winter's upcoming supply from snowmelt, and the cove at Beal's Point appears to be far shallower than the center of the lake, so it empties first.

Except winter is not obliging so far. December ended as the fourth driest since records were first kept during the Gold Rush. January opens dry and warm for this time in winter. Last year near-record snows fell and the reservoirs all over the state filled to capacity.

For now, Lake Natoma is high and cold, the water taken from the bottom of Folsom Lake. Its levels change by almost a foot from one day to the next as the water controllers regulate how much to send downriver, but the reservoir remains full for the most part. Though I have been swimming in the lake for nearly a year, I don't know enough about it to say whether its levels would drop in severe drought.

Selfishly, I think of neighbors on my block who water winter and summer, the runoff sheeting across the sidewalks and forming fast-flowing rivulets down the gutters into the drains. I multiply that by the number of households across the region likely doing likewise, never adjusting their irrigation cycles to meet water needs, and wonder if I could be swimming in this cove but for that.  

Winter, do your worst. Please.

Almost nothing, as far as the eye can see …