Thursday, March 29, 2012

a … HA!!!

That noise you hear, America, is the thunder of people running to support my as-yet unchallenged  theory on California wine.

The big guns have joined ranks behind me, so who knows how big this Rally for Reason will grow?

By big guns, I mean the folks behind Freakonomics: Writer Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven D. Levitt, who through two books, a documentary film, and now a radio show, have challenged long-held assumptions about the way we think about money and the economy.

I love it when really smart people reexamine what we firmly believe or stubbornly assume and, with calm scrutiny of facts, show us we're dead wrong.

Stephen and Steven have agreed not to go near my firm beliefs and stubborn assumptions, so I firmly believe and assume my campaign for Wine Truth will advance undeterred.

Of course, Stephen and Steven don't know who the hell I am, but I sure know them, because last week my neighborhood National Public Radio station (shout out to KXJZ, Sacramento!) ran old episodes of Freakonomics Radio in place of an hour-long local issues talk show.

And what to my wondering ears should appear but a story challenging our ideas about the economics of wine. To wit: Wine is a con.

Dubner didn't say it quite so boldly or succinctly, but the episode featured other economists using calm factual scrutiny — and some funny subterfuge — to demonstrate that drinkers can't really tell an expensive wine from swill. OK, less expensive but nicely labeled wine like you can find in any supermarket.

One economist hosted a wine tasting for learned Ivy League oenophiles (wine snobs) by putting a variety of wines in separate unlabeled decanters. Not only could the learned drinkers NOT tell which was expensive and which cheap, but claimed to note a difference in two wines in particular — even though it was the same wine poured from two different decanters.

Another economist created a fake restaurant, complete with fake menu and wine list, carefully constructed to include extremely expensive wines that The Wine Spectator — the beacon and trend maker of wine journalism — had condemned in reviews. The economist submitted his "restaurant's" wine list for The Wine Spectator's annual awards recognition for such folderol. The economist's hypothesis: The awards were an excuse to sell advertising.

The economist's fake restaurant did indeed receive one of the awards. A representative from The Wine Spectator asked if he'd like to advertise the news in the magazine. The economist attended the awards ceremony and explained his fraud.

The same economist conducted a more thorough, scientifically controlled study of many, many wine tastings held at vaunted wine festivals and celebrations, and came up with a similar conclusion to the economist with the intimate gathering of tasters: Wine drinkers can't tell the difference between expensive wines and the more economical ones (which the industry calls by a funny name: fighting varietals).

Carve out an hour of time and listen to the episode. At the very least, it's entertaining.

So, why is expensive wine so darned expensive? It's a meta-marketing tool: It not only makes people think the wines are better for their expense, but they pay the big bucks for the false privilege. Genius! I shall charge in the five- or six-figure range for my illustrations from now on.

The expensive wine probably doesn't cost more to produce than the others, but maybe the prices should reflect the actual costs, huh? Beers are mostly the same price. The smaller so-called craft brewers charge more for their six-packs than the Coors and Anheuser-Busch products (simple input-costs per unit of product stuff), but not anywhere near the five to 10 times what some wineries charge over others for their product. Maybe wine drinkers should vote their wallets.

Look, people are going to enjoy their wines — I recognize there's no stopping that. I can't taste the difference in wines, and when my wife and family and friends go wine tasting, I'm the designated driver for that reason. I have to go stand among the grape cluster-shaped trivets and $50 sweatshirts and chocolate-covered elderberries so the winery staffers can't hear my eyes roll when they talk about how this wine has notes of cherries and noses of vanilla and a finish evocative of sandalwood, or whatever. It's all just countertop psychology: I tell you this wine tastes like fish, and you'll certainly detect a nuanced blend of rock cod and sturgeon, maybe a jouncy afterthought of halibut.

The Freakonomics guys didn't exactly say that all of California's wine comes from one big municipal tank hidden somewhere near Modesto (and that it's all white wine and the red wine is simply dyed); they didn't say all the wineries in the state drive up to little spigots on the tank late at night and get their boutique's allotment.

But that's the conclusion I'm jumping to.

Rally for reason, America, and speak truth to the wine power!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sight unseen: New work

You wouldn't see much of this work outside of this blog.

These pieces became the fallout of one of those pesky paradigm shifts.

Icons, Round 1, testing the waters …
Still, I had fun with a long laundry list of illustration projects for California ISO, which was publishing a document designed to explain to the uninitiated public and industry experts alike what Cal ISO does (which is to work ceaselessly to make sure California always gets the electricity it needs, in a sustainable way, at a fair price; you've just endured a grossly simplified explanation).

Driven by a consultant, the project was designed to arrive fully formed on the desks of decision makers, so few elements were sketched first. Most went directly to digital rendering.

The job, should I have chosen to accept (and I did!) asked:

Icons, Round 2: Decision makers needed
to see work in close-to-finished form, so
few sketches underpinned this series of work.
• Can I draw one of those twisty compact fluorescent bulbs, but twisted in the shape of the state of California, and make it glow?

• Can I make a bunch of icons representing the many electrical power sources and conveyances, such as dams for hydroelectric power, pipes for geothermal power, windmills, transmission towers?

• Can I make a bunch more icons showing power users, such as homes and buildings?

• Can I make icons showing consumer/producer, such as electric vehicles — lots and lots of vehicles?

• Can I fit all these icons into diagrams showing how power flows between consumers and producers?

• Can I make more of the same icons, but in a different way, when a tiny paradigm shift (a foreshock?) requires a change?

• Can I come up with a whole new concept for the fluorescent bulb, when that concept crumbles in the paradigm shift?

• Can I turn the western states into giant puzzle pieces suggesting their dependence on one another for power creation and distribution?

• Can I turn California into a giant conference table, around which stakeholders decide power policy together?

• Can I render a giant map of California, dotting the landscape with all the kinds and sources of electrical power?

• Can I create a single panoramic landscape, showing the spectrum and variety of electrical production and consumption?

Thoreau as art director: Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Sure! I said.

Still more and different icons …
In the end, only the last two on the list survived the paradigm shift.

The initial project itself was a shift from previous projects I have been able to do for Cal ISO. The biggest difference from the start was that it didn't require keeping to a limited official Cal ISO color palette — a dark blue, a dark green, a yellow green, an aquamarine, an ochre and a brown.

Since it's a tough — though welcome — challenge to keep illustrations lively within the palette, being able to roam around the visible light spectrum felt freeing.

Off I went:
One iteration of the state-shaped table …
… after another …
… after another …
The West became a colorful puzzle …
The design staff folded all the illustrations into the publication. The consultant presented it.

The decision makers decided: Uh, no.

That sound you heard was the paradigm shifting.

Out went all the icons and with them, the color. Another illustrator was called in to create different icons. I was asked to create a couple of new cover concepts, just in case: 

Shout out to San Diego, Los Angeles(ish), Fresno and San Francisco …
I was still filling the night sky with all those huddled masses of light when this idea got nixed.
But these didn't make the final product. Instead, the publication sampled for the cover the one illustration that remained, of the landscape of power users and consumers. You can see how that illustration gradually filled with details as its color drained away:

I measure satisfaction in my jobs by what I learn and the fun I had, and Cal ISO was gracious and patient throughout, even as the ground shifted.

This, from the first round of ideas, is still my favorite:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

'Twas ever thus*

Editors at The Mustang Daily, where I had worked as a Cal Poly journalism student, agreed to let me draw editorial cartoons shortly after I had graduated in the 20th Century, in my effort to land a full-time job at it.

Though funding for higher education is truly in crisis now, and public education increasingly goes to the highest bidder, and students are staying in school longer (if they can still afford to) just to get the classes they need to graduate, affordable higher education has always been screwed, and screwed with, as this 'toon reveals.

Although, considering how little we had to pay for our education compared to students now — and how much we got for so little — maybe I should be too ashamed even to post it. I said maybe.

*cite whomever you want on this one: R. Crumb, John Keating, Wm. Shakespeare, et. al.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Last of a breed

Ervin Gilbert Fahlgren,

Photo courtesy of his daughter, Bonnie,
who was named after my mom.
Three of the Greatest Generation — and the last of one family's generation — have passed away this month.

One is my Great-Uncle Ervin Fahlgren, one of five brothers who served together aboard the same ship which was disabled in the attack of Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, died March 11 at 92. He survived all of his six brothers, all World War II veterans, and a sister — my grandmother, Irene Gibson.

Another is Joseph P. Murphy Jr., the father-in-law of my wife's twin, who died the same day at 89. The retired Sonoma County Superior Court judge, fought as a Marine at Guadalcanal and in the battle of Iwo Jima.

Another is Joe Davey Jr., a man who with grace and a huge smile served the poor and the desperate in the neighborhoods around our church northeast of Sacramento. As a Marine fighter pilot, Joe fought in the Solomon and Philippine islands.

They had so much to teach, and did. Still, I had so much more I could have learned.

Great-Uncle Ervin would have been the only one remaining to read a post I wrote commemorating the Fahlgren brothers' Navy service aboard the USS Vestal, a repair ship moored to the USS Arizona when Japanese bombers attacked. The Fahlgrens in the Navy — brother Leonard joined the Army — survived the attack and Ervin joined his brothers when the Vestal was repaired and put back into service, until the military stopped letting so many siblings serve together in the same small units.

The Fahlgren children: Ervin, Warner, Carl and Glen in back;
Vern, my grandma Irene, Gordon and Leonard.
Since writing about Great-Uncle Ervin and his brothers for the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I have connected and reconnected with some of the members of the brothers' families; through them I learned of his passing, and through them I'm beginning to put a puzzle  together.

Ervin came home from the war and raised his family in Klamath Falls, Ore. I remember visiting his family — my second cousins — at least once, probably on our way to Spokane, Wash. to visit my grandma. Klamath Falls was a timber town then, if I remember correctly, and great-Uncle Ervin was a driver there. Giant blackened upside-down cones, the sawdust incinerators, peppered the landscape, like Paul Bunyan's fencerows. Mountains of sideways trees lay next to the cones, and the air carried the sour smell of wet campfires. Oregon's landscape has changed considerably since then. Ervin his family moved to Wilsonville, south of Portland, where he and his wife managed a trailer court.
Ervin and Warner in front,
Vern, Glenn and Gordon in back.

Funny the moments on which we snag our memories. For me, the thought of Klamath Falls takes me immediately to a moment running around with cousins — I must have been five or six — and falling headlong on a gravel alley, scraping up both palms. The cousins and my great-aunt Edna tended my wounds and tried to soothe my howls; I remember feeling embarrassed, because I didn't want their memory of me to be this kid who screams out of all proportion to his hurts.

Now we are grown and our parents are passing away, and in their passing we are reacquainting.

Like Great-Uncle Ervin's children, the children of Joseph Murphy, and their children, gathered this week to remember him. I have always known him as the retired judge, gentle-voiced, quick to gather you in on a conversation, quicker with the driest, sharpest wit I may ever have heard. And easily the most devoted fan of baseball I will ever meet.

He loved baseball's numbers, finding in its 150 years or more of history a rich mine.

What I didn't know, and didn't think to ask about, is his wartime service. In a Press Democrat story recalling Joe Murphy's life, one of his daughters says the experience, and the loss of friends in battle, deepened his appreciation for life and informed his compassionate ways as a judge. At his retirement, attorneys called Joe Murphy "the embodiment of what a judge should be."

A retired attorney at Joe Murphy's wake said he might lose a case in the judge's court and feel better about it than if he had won, because Joe Murphy was fair and compassionate.

Nor did I know that he led a protest against the United States' role in its attack on Iraq in 1991. Though I shared his beliefs, I didn't know it, and he proved far more forthright than I in acting on his beliefs. What a conversation, missed!

Joe Davey and I briefly shared in acting out our beliefs, when we volunteered for the St. Vincent de Paul Society at our church. Joe remained active until he couldn't be active anymore. My lame excuse is a cattywhampus career path that detoured when I went to teacher school.

Though engaged in similar jobs helping the poor within the society, Joe and I rarely worked together. Didn't matter. Joe greeted me like an old friend. He was glad to see me and it showed. He made everyone glad to be seen. He smiled thoughtfully at what I had to say, practically watching the words come out of my mouth so he could join fully in our conversation.

As a Marine, he flew Corsair fighters during campaigns in Okinawa, as well as the Solomon and Philippine Islands, during World War II. He settled in Carmichael and worked as the sales executive for a tool company. And probably made clients feel glad and welcome.

I take from Joe Davey a reminder to greet others as I want to be greeted and welcomed, to emerge more often from my mask of reserve. From Joe Murphy I recall his easy, comfortable way, and his children's remembrance of him as one who treated everything and everyone with patience; though I could never match wits with his wit, I will listen to Giants games with the idea that they play on, and generate the numbers he love, in his memory.

From Ervin Fahlgren, I take the rootedness that lived on in my mom, his niece, who, though full of mirth, regarded life with a hard edge of common sense and practicality. Maybe it's a Midwest, North Dakota/Montana sensibility. My dad, a Korean War veteran, deeply admired people like Ervin Fahlgren and his brothers, for what they provided for him.

From all of these World War II veterans, who lived through horrors, I try to take something from their model, their coming home to carry out in thought and deed the free country they sacrificed to protect, to make possible all that that I am able to do and think, and strive to make something of this opportunity.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Crunching numbers

Maybe I wouldn't have amounted to much of a teacher, after all.

I may not have gone where I intended to go,
but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.*

Maybe this is a bizarro "It's a Wonderful Life" story, wherein George Bailey, granted a chance to see a world without him in it, finds little difference.

Maybe some soothsayer could have talked me out of an expensive four-year rollercoaster ride that dropped me right where I'd started.

I mean, numbers don't lie … ?

Under ideal conditions, I'd be rolling toward the end of my fifth year as a teacher right now, my severalth career.

Hopped up on high stress, I'd be prepping students for the all-important state test (known as STAR in California, for Standardized Testing and Reporting) to which teachers must teach these days, because results mean so much to the future of each school. But I'd accept the stress, just as I had chosen this profession, and its myriad competing expectations.

Right about now, I'd be congratulating myself at the organizational skills I'd amassed in the last five years — and cursing myself for forgetting to photocopy the one worksheet I would need for the morning.

In a few moments I'd be racing to the school, hoping the custodial staff had unlocked the campus so I could be first to the photocopier, praying the machine wouldn't jam mid-job.

Right about now — the Ides of March — I'd receive the letter telling me my services won't be needed for the next school year. It would likely have been the fifth consecutive notice; with receipt of each one, I'd have sweated out the coming months like thousands of other teachers statewide.

Having survived — having had my termination rescinded — like as not I'd been teaching a different grade and at a different school from when I started. Maybe even a different district, where I'd start all over on the seniority ladder. But I'd be lucky and happy for a teaching job. I might have cut my workday to nine or 10 hours, and finally stopped falling asleep on the classroom floor trying to put the next day together and defuse the landmines.

Right about now, I'd dare to entertain a half-thought: I just might get the hang of this teaching thing one day.

These aren't ideal conditions, though, in case you're the last to know. The economy, to use a term economists have employed, sucks. California's economy suffers from its own poison brand of suckage, eating away at the infrastructure to provide for even the most standard needs, especially public education from pre-Kindergarten to graduate school.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, is bracing for $400 million in cuts the next school year, eliminating adult education and cutting 11,000 jobs. That's in addition to millions of dollars and thousands of jobs already cut from the budget since bleeding began in full in 2008.

(More than 20,000 California teachers this month have received their pink slips; it's an annual ritual, more widespread in the last three years. Though many will be able to return to teaching, more and more will not. School districts will wait until November — two months after the school year will have begun — whether voters will raise taxes to prevent a $4.8 billion cut to public K-12 education in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget. Isn't that a fun job, predicting whether or not your school district will have enough money to pay for teachers, staff and resources? Over whose heads will hang the sword?)

Twin Rivers Unified School District in the Sacramento area, where I last worked as a full-time teacher, would be spared cuts under a tax initiative proposed by Gov. Brown for the November ballot. Twin Rivers would get special treatment as a new district, even though it's really four districts swallowed into one and given a new name.

Frustrated by an array of similar initiatives designed to enhance or obfuscate his own proposal, Gov. Brown has been trying to wave off the other initiatives, and just this week agreed to join forces with another initiative, if for nothing else to simplify the ballot.

But maybe all this bleeding is a good thing?

I mean, Del Paso Heights Elementary School, where I last worked, had 19 teachers on staff in 2011, the latest public figures show. Those teachers served 478 students.

In 2008, the year I worked there, Del Paso Heights had 28 teachers, who served … 478 students.

Fewer teachers — nearly a third fewer — the same number of students. I have to conclude that some or all of the classrooms became more populous, that state laws to cap enrollment to 20 students per class from kindergarten through third grade were lifted. I know that the classroom in which I taught was re-fitted the next year to accommodate students with severe disabilities who came from another school, so general education students were consolidated into remaining classrooms.

I may have been one of those 28 teachers in the 2008 figures; I'm not sure. The data released by the California Department of Education, and made available by the news media (in this case The Sacramento Bee) lists staffing by year, rather than school calendar year. So instead of listing 28 teachers in the 2008-09 school year, it lists 28 for 2008. I'm confused, you see.

Five teachers were let go that first year, nine total since then.

The conventional thinking is that a lower student-teacher ratio is best for students; students get more attention, more instruction, more correction, more chances to make mistakes and learn from them. But the STAR results — the results that officially matter — for the same 2008-2011 period suggest the students are doing no worse, and in some instances are doing better with fewer teachers and more crowded classrooms.

(Full disclosure: I'll never be mistaken for a statistician. Glaring poorly thought-out analysis may soon ensue.)

Look at STAR results for the third grade, where I taught, in 2009, the results from the year I taught them (those poor students!) In language arts, only 5 percent were considered advanced, and 18 percent proficient. These are the holy grail levels teachers strive for. A third of third graders tested at the basic level for language arts, 22 percent were "below basic," and 21 percent "far below basic."

Math was far different: A third of the students tested as advanced, 22 percent as proficient, and 18 percent as basic. Seventeen percent finished at "below basic," and 9 percent as "far below basic."

(Why math comes out so much better is a puzzle; maybe numbers are the truly universal language, and since at least six languages were spoken in my classroom, and about a third of the students were learning English as a second language, numbers made more sense to more students; maybe the math lessons of a more experienced colleague enriched we teachers who deployed them in our classes.)

The next year, after five teachers on staff were dismissed, the percentage of third-graders listed as advanced in math dipped to 25 percent, but those labeled proficient ballooned to 41 percent. The percentage for basic students stayed the same, while those for "below basic" and "far below basic" shrunk.

In language arts for 2010 STAR results among third graders, a higher percentage scored in the advance and proficient categories than did the year before — from 5 percent to 17 percent for advanced, and from 18 percent to 29 percent for proficient. The percentages of students scoring basic and below shrank.

By 2011, with four fewer teachers serving the same number of students, STAR scores for third graders moved more into the basic (37 percent compared to 27 percent the year before) and "below basic" levels (25 percent, up from 18 percent the year before). Those "far below basic" held steady at 9 percent.

Math scores held fairly steady, except that a higher percentage of students moved up into the upper three groups. Only 7 percent of third graders tested in 2011 scored "below basic" in math, and only 3 percent "far below basic."

Though I'm not privy to the herculean battle teachers waged to help their students, I don't doubt the remaining teachers and their principal girded up and bonded over the challenge of improving test scores. Their effort, at least in the case third grade, defies conventional thinking. As crowded as the classrooms may have gotten, the teachers found a way for more of the students to grasp the concepts they're supposed to know at that grade.

Results for the other grades show their own vagaries, but nothing to tell me that the loss of nine teachers spelled academic doom for the same number of students.

Getting laid off dismayed and disheartened and discolored me. I had gone back to college (an education in itself, and not just in the classroom) to embark on a new career path, to find I have horrible timing. Since the district did not give me any official credit for time served as a teacher (I was a 0.0), and I was under temporary contract, the teachers' union couldn't do more than bid me, "Good luck with … whatever."

I was lucky to have something else to do to make money. Not so with some of the other students who went to teacher school with me. And since then I have had some teaching opportunities, most recently teaching art to students in special education through a third-party program. I enjoy the challenge, as I had when I was teaching full time. I was committed then to being the best I could be, to figuring out how. I was in it, as they say, to win it.

I was willing then to give up most of what my life had been to that point. Teaching, at least for me, was all or nothing. I would have to give my all to become good at it, and give up freelance drawing, give up swimming regularly, give up the fun of being a tour guide and doing side jobs, give up the lack of a regular schedule, in exchange for good (I thought so, anyway) consistent pay and a career pursuing teaching mastery.

But maybe these are all sweet lemons. Maybe this rocky short-lived teaching career was an elaborate way of demonstrating I was not meant to be a teacher. For all my willingness to become good at teaching, I have to admit I'm not good at it now.

I teach for an hour at a time now, and I look at the second-grade teacher, standing aside for my time, ready to assist, her students wound up from a long day, being second graders, unable to sit quite as still or be quite as quiet as my lessons really need — and me really unable to settle them — their room redolent with their sour playground sweat. And I think: I could not do this all day, day after day, and worry about my shortcomings each summer day until school resumes, and worry about where and whether I'll be when school resumes, to try and do better.

It's hard not to think, based on the numbers I just crunched, that students can get along OK without me for a teacher.

This will not be a post I'll return to for inspiration.

* Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Medici, Part III: Jersey Shore

A Harley Quinn-inspired jersey, never produced; I'm sad.
Greg Archer's ideas and passion outlasted his brick-and-mortar bike accessories store, The Rest Stop. As a result, not all of the products which he asked me to design and illustrate for the store ever saw daylight, unless you count my Web site.

So it's show-and-tell time. First up: Wearables.

Besides seasonal direct-mail and media advertising, I got to create several promotional items for The Rest Stop's use over time, in a broad spectrum that includes bicycle racing jerseys, signs, a racing cap, gift card, certificates, coffee mugs, and a water bottle. I even designed logos for beer brands; I can't remember if they were just whimsical notions for beer coasters one day, or if beer would eventually be produced as excuses to affix labels.

I worked on a mural that succumbed to logistical obstacles. I created flags.

In short, I made Dog, The Rest Stop's spokesdog, jump through a lot of hoops, which it did, with silent aplomb — which has got to be difficult for a spokesdog.

For the "Joker" jersey, never produced (boo!), dog played king and queen and joker:
I bow before the designers of playing cards; those card backs are marvels of intricacy,
of which mine is faint imitation; poor pink dog, how I tortured you!
Dog did double duty on the shoulder designs, my favorite part of the racing jerseys: made the production very manageable with its digital templates.
The western terminus of The Pony Express in 1860 (we'll conveniently ignore San Francisco), Sacramento got a history revision from yours truly:

The penny-farthing'd Pony Express rider was featured on one of only two racing jerseys we could manage to ready for market. This one featured a rockin' and rollin' Sacramento by day on the front (including the state capitol building, the Renaissance Tower known locally as the Darth Vader Building, the Tower Bridge, a basketball for the Sacramento Kings and a baseball on the other side of the Sacramento River for the Sacramento River Cats) …

And the back side of the city at night:
Though not to scale, The Rest Stop store is just about where it used to be in relation to the city.
I've stopped riders on the American River Bike Trail to tell them I designed their jersey. And they've looked at me just about the way you imagine they would if a sweaty schlub stopped them in mid ride to say such a thing.

The other jersey The Rest Stop was able to make and sell gently parodied the Tour de France  climbing champion's shirt. It featured … guess who?!

The first jersey we worked on also never made it off the drawing board. Oh, how I wanted to see the so-called "flywheel" jersey out on the trail:
It would have featured, for the first time, the penny-farthing image and early
bicycles, including the da Vinci velocipede hoax.
Why? I don't know. It just needed to be done.
 And the best part, the shoulder patch:
One of the last projects for The Rest Stop was also among the most fun. A cyclist's cap that Greg himself models here:
Flap down …
Flap up…

And the best part of that project was making up sponsors' logos to adorn the hat:
Sonic screwdrivers were Greg's idea, inspired by Dr Who; Chain Food was an actual idea
I proposed for a long-ago client (who was a fool not to use it!).
Pace Sportswear also furnished an easy-to-use template.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

annus mirabilis

One year ago, I first fell headlong into the murky, unremitting, unforgiving, frigid embrace of the open water, and never got out.

Except for a really good reason — backpacking most of a spring week with my son — I have swum open water at least four days every week since February 20, 2011. I have managed to find a lake or two even while camping on vacation, not to mention a few points along the California coastline, and wondered when I would get back in a pool.

(In fact, I finally canceled my gym membership after a long absence from the pool. Not my best move, it turns out; more on that later.)

The milestone felt like a millstone as the months crept up to the anniversary. A feat I feared I'd never reach actually passed two weeks ago, and I've wrestled with getting around to writing about it, almost — almost! — letting it pass without notice.

But to have done so would have eventually burned a hole in my gut. So much has happened that I hadn't expected ever to happen, that I need to let it out. I've swum from Alcatraz Island, an event for which I planned even as I doubted I really would or could; I've swum, however briefly, in chilled 39-degree chop in crystal clear Lake Tahoe; I've swum well past the length of a pier at Avila Beach, a pier from which long ago as a teenager I looked out and wondered idly if anyone had swum that far out — and wondered why anyone would.

It turns out that one would swim that far just for the delight of waving to people standing high on the end of the pier, wondering why anyone would swim that far.

That's the real, selfish fun for me. I have managed all that time to swim without a wetsuit. Only a few people I know do likewise in the open water in these parts. It's amazing to me to be able to do it; though I don't wave my arms and make a big show when I emerge from the water, I enjoy when onlookers ask every question but, "Are you nuts?"

(Last February, a man walking his dog asked us, "Why?" with such fervor that he leapt into a mild rage, his hands shaking and balling up as he asked, "Really: Why?!" He wanted a rational answer other than, "Because it's fun." I think he felt responsible in case we turned to frozen fish sticks and he had to alert the authorities.) 

At once practical and medicinal, open water swimming has also served as catharsis, as most hobbies do in their ideal, creating a restorative outlet for much of my free time. As one prone to funks, I have found in the open water a forum in which to deal frankly with myself, and renew hope and set goals and reexamine what may be redeeming about me.

In so doing, I have come to know and befriend interesting people who share the love of open water swimming, but have introduced me to many different ways of regarding the world — whether as ridiculous spectacle to laugh about, or as a constant challenge to we human inhabitants, in mind and body. Besides, a grey cold day and choppy green water is best faced with at least one other fool.

They have encouraged me with words, and shown and shone by example.

Through facebook I have met more swimmers from around the country and all over the world, who have revealed that open water swimming is a joy shared globally. I remember being a kid and visiting my parents' longtime friends. Mr. Benjamin would show off his ham radio, and after patiently fussing with the controls, occasionally a voice would squeak and squall through the box, a voice from Norway or Nova Scotia, say. It was fun, but it was hit or miss.

Say what you will, good or bad, about social media, but one wonder it provides is the chance to correspond instantaneously with a swimmer in New South Wales who has just sent a photo of a neon blue and yellow Eastern fiddler ray he swam near, or with a world renowned open water swimmer who must train in a net in the ocean to save herself from lethal jellyfish and sharks.

I have also come to know a place. Two places. I swim at either end of the the long, snake-shaped Lake Natoma, that is really a section of river dammed above and below. Each day that I swim, I take in the usually still water and the dark forests, and note the changes that each day brings, subtle though they are. Early blossoms, say, or the ring of bright water signaling the presence of a river otter, or the sudden coke-bottle clarity of shoals of riprap.

I have watched the arc of the sun dip and rise and now dip again; I have noticed the work of the earth lost to me from inside my car and room and constraints of time. I catalog these passages in my head — a swim buddy and I have even begun gathering daily data — and have seen what a year does to these places. I'm looking forward to getting to know these quiet places better.

(Just an aside, but I'm upset at the mild winter. Last February, first fighting with the cold water, my skin turned bright pink and spongy, and the sting of the cold felt like knife points to my face. Now I'm used to it, and as the temperature dropped degree by degree over the fall and winter, I spent at least one swim in slight pain getting used to the new low level of cold. My arms and hands stung, and I visualized fins of blue flame shooting up my arms, pretending their heat was what really stung; my lips numbed and I couldn't close them to speak; a day later, I was used to the cold, and I was looking forward to facing the water at 46 degrees, the lowest the lake fell last year in the snow and rain. A feeble winter means less snow to melt into Folsom Lake, then to drain from the lake bottom into Lake Natoma, which means the water won't get that cold again this year. I'm so disappointed.) 

It has been, as I said, annus mirabilis, a wonderful year. Or maybe in a more nuanced translation, a year of wonders. Or maybe even as the poet John Dryden intended when he wrote under this title in 1667 after beplagued London burned: It could have been worse.

Now a new year of the open water stretches before me.


I wonder what the new wonder will be. Right now, I can barely see it for all the numbers. Like cutoff times for a 10k swim. Or consistent times for 100-yard sets. Or negative splits. Or hypoxic breathing. Numbers are not my friends.

This year I want to do the same, only moreso. I might join in fewer races, staying in some favorites just to see how I'll do compared to this year. Maybe I'll swim Alcatraz again, though that can be expensive.

Foremost is swimming at least one 10k race. One is scheduled for early June. I have done diddly about signing up. I have nudged the whole idea with a tentative toe, paralyzed by the idea of swimming that distance in the 3 1/2-hour limit.

I'm hung up on the idea of getting faster. I don't know how to do it, and stay true to the sometimes maligned Total Immersion technique that has gotten me this far, literally, without tearing up my body.

One way, according to conventional wisdom, is to use a swimming pool. So, having just canceled my membership, I now show up from time to time, pay a drop-in fee, and swim. I have proven to myself I can swim the 10k (6.2-mile) distance. I just can't do so within the time limit.

So I'm stuck, mentally anyway. I need to go back to the Total Immersion resources and find the refinements that will help me go faster. I need to research sets that will speed me up and make me stronger. I need to do more than swim, like strengthen my core through other exercise.

And I'll get to it. I will. Whatever keeps me in the open water.

But you know what? The open water is enough for me. I can't say it's freedom, because for me it's a struggle, enduring what are for me long distances. Some people call it wild swimming, and I love that term. It's an honest engagement, an endeavor of mitigated danger, mastery of which lay juuuuuust beyond my grasp.

On the far shore, where I'll always be headed.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Please stand by

Frimmin' on the jim jam …
Feeling discombobulated this week, like a patient etherized on a table.

Hey, not unlike this broken keg and the deluded home brewer endeavoring to resurrect it, for a story in Brew Your Own Magazine!

(I loved doing this job. Loved it! Have I mentioned how much I loved it? Well, I did. Love it, I mean.)

When all the king's horses put me back together again, I'll post more Brew Your Own stuff, and explain.

You deserve a break today. ™®©.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A mere trifle

Black Prismacolor®©™ pencil over non-photo blue pencil of the University of California, Davis,
campus for
UC Davis Magazine, I believe. If I find the color version, I'll post it, but I like the
raw stuff  beneath. I made sure to include the egghead sculptures by Robert Arneson; treat yourself
this spring to a stroll around this campus, to see the sculptures and the glens, and listen to young
people fervently solving the world's problems as they ride bikes along the shady paths.
The ultimate TV show for me would be watching great illustrators and cartoonists draw. Each hour would feature a different illustrator, doing no more than sketching and taking a work as close as he or she could to final art.

No music or noise, except for whatever ambient sound the illustrator prefers in the course of a normal workday, and the illustrator talking … about what's going on in the illustration, about errands still to run, whatever.

You could dry your eyeballs watching all the Youtube®©™ videos of people "teaching" drawing, but most come with loud driving music, as if the illustration itself isn't worth watching. And many seem to be of illustrators showing off, rather than working unbeknownst to looky loos.

But watching true illustrators work, taking pencil to paper and not a remote digital pen to a computer screen … I'd be transfixed. Who'd watch that, you say? Well, who would watch cable TV shows about people looking for apartments to rent or condos to buy, but there those TV shows are, season after season.

We'll just have to agree to disagree.

I thought of all this during the week while looking through a collection of work by and about Walt Kelly, the creator of one of comic history's greatest strips, Pogo. He and his assistant George Ward were masters of brush and ink. Their work was rich and alive and funny, even without Kelly's brilliant loopy repartee and layered satire with which the characters of the Okefenokee Swamp did battle.
Some elements are changed, for reasons I can't remember. Someone has run away with
the pig; maybe that wasn't a selling point. Unfortunately, my memory of wandering around
the UC Davis campus came with the stink of pigs penned on campus.

Unfortunately, the book misses what I miss most, to see Pogo in progress. Walt Kelly drew roughly in a blue pencil (a certain shade of blue invisible to the reproducing camera), then made tighter sketches over that in graphite pencil, then inked most of the daily strips himself by brushing over the pencil lines, or handed over Sunday strips and other materials to George Ward, who learned to mimic Kelly's masterful line.

Other people did the lettering, and that was its own mastery. The lettering in Pogo was vibrant and varied and perfect. Deacon Mushrat, a hypocrite religious type, always spoke in a carefully rendered blackletter gothic script; P.T. Bridgeport, a bear named for Walt Kelly's Connecticut hometown which also produced circus impresario P.T. Barnum, always spoke in elaborate showcard lettering, complete with dingbats.

What I'd have given to live in Walt Kelly's time, and see his work! He was a gregarious center of attention, by most accounts, but I wouldn't have been interested in that. I would have simply wanted to watch him draw, to stay out of his light while he put shape and line and character and perspective to bristol board.

In the spirit of all that, I have plucked an illustration from my dense pile, a cartoon map for the University of California, Davis, with all the blotches and rough edges. I have enervated more than one illustration by inking it, benumbing the fresh liveliness it had when it was a mere pencil sketch. Walt Kelly's wonder, among many, was making his finished are livelier than his livewire sketches.

And I hereby declare a theme I'll repeat until you tire of it: I love, love, LOVE doing hand-rendered illustration, which I have gotten away from, in lieu of digital drawing, for the sake of speed. And I'd love, love, LOVE to do so much more. Just in case that is something you need to know.