Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In the swim

Short of schlepping pop-up tents and tables, and operating a stopwatch, I was not much help with our daughter's sports. When allowed, I designed logos instead.

I took advantage of our kids' high school's lack of graphic standards (tightened up recently, with Boston College apparently asking the school to stop using a modification of its eagle logo; though the football team still uses the Philadelphia Eagles' helmet insignia) to come up with a water polo design one season. It just had to be eagle-ish and use the words El Camino or the initials EC.

Inspired by the motivational coaches on our daughter's team, and the cohesive boys' and girls' water polo program (and, I admit, a short-lived trend in baroque flourishes in TV and clothing design for the teen demographic), I created this fire-and-water look evoking a bird in flight. Water for the battleground, and fire for the passion with which the teams often played.

Here are some variations for a summer program, not yet used (left):

Maura's youth swim team changed its name from the Sea Wolves to the Piranhas. though I did artwork for the former, it's locked away in 20th Century digital storage and I've yet to get a chance to pry it out.

This is the mark (below) I did for the Piranhas, which I understand the team still uses.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Confessions of a coach

Each Pirate that year got a customized baseball card. Our son's highlighted his
ability to steal bases almost at will. Stealing home became his specialty.
Baseball bits and pieces, Part II:

Pity the
coach's kid.

Whether a wunderkind or just one of the team, the child of a coach bears the added burden of always having the coach afoot.

Other kids see only what passes for the ideal coach, at least in the coach's mind: Organized, fun-loving, motivational, inspirational, supportive.

Then the other kids get go to their homes and the coach's kid sees coach behind the scenes: Disorganized, haggard, hurried, deflating and, worse, projecting frustrations onto the one member of the team who's handy.

For the kid, it's like knowing all along that the great and powerful coach is really some small person  behind the curtain pulling levers and twisting valves. Only without the fabulous going-away prizes.

So it was with our son, whom I coached six years in Little League, and helped coach three seasons in soccer (Not to mention 11 years as a den leader in Cub Scouts and scoutmaster in Boy Scouts.)

The kid got to (had to) do a lot on the ballfield …
Luckily after all those years, I didn't separate him from his love of baseball. It survived intact.

It's no small wonder, though: So many car rides in which I fumed over us being late to practice or having forgotten something, or got angry when he didn't model the cooperative behavior I wanted from all the players; I didn't communicate those expectations very well — shouldn't really have sought them in the first place — and after all, he was just a kid, just like all the other kids. Kids without coaches at home.

(It was less so for our daughter, though she probably caught some of the peripheral flak. Because her softball seasons coincided with Little League, I helped coach her team only when I could, as the assistant's assistant. She and the girls on her team early on were more interested in sophisticated chants from the dugout than in digging out grounders, and I was useless for chants.

[When our daughter began water polo, I was experienced enough — made it almost all the way through one entire practice in high school! — to know the sport is probably the most physically demanding sport going, and smart enough to know I didn't know the game; I designed artwork for the team instead, and limited my cheering to, "Go, Mo!" and "Go (whatever team Mo was playing for)!"]

Despite all the self-imposed sturm und drang, I enjoyed coaching, especially the front-row seat to see kids progress in their skills and grow in unexpected ways.

Though I understand the chronic criticism about children today getting rewarded for anything, a culture in which everyone gets a trophy so that no one loses self-esteem, I still wanted to celebrate each player for what they accomplished as players and were as people. Instead of trophies, I made tokens of celebration. I designed season-end T-shirts one year, and a couple of years created custom caricatures, including one-of-a-kind oversized baseball cards.

These are the ones I did for our son. When we were the Dodgers (Oh, how it strained us to don Dodger gear, but we sucked it up and carried on), Liam was just beginning to put his understanding and ability together. He played all around the field mostly because (poor coach's kid!) I was constantly making room for other players to try positions.

On the Pirates the next year, Liam became speedy (he'd go lean in one growth spurt, wide the next, and this was the lean season), and figured out how to take advantage of a ballfield's quirks and opponents' inconsistencies to steal his way around the bases.

Though gifts to the players, the tokens were just as much gifts to myself, reminding me (though some days my head was thicker than on others) that above all the kids come out to the park to have fun. That goes just as much for the coach's kid.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

'Cuz I'm the panderer, yeah, the panderer …

Baseball bits and pieces, Part I:

While the rest of the world snoozed, the Bay Area went simultaneously orgasmic and miasmic as the Oakland A's played the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 World Series. It took an major earthquake to bring the Fall Classic to the country's attention.

The 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta quake shook the Giants more than folks and fans had figured, and once the ballparks were approved again for human habitation, the A's steamrolled their National League foes in four straight.

I played it both ways in this cartoon, pandering to The Stockton Record's readers who might be either Giants or A's fans. Fans used to be able to buy custom hats with the Giants logo and colors one one side of the crown, the A's symbol and colors on the other; I don't know if they can get 'em anymore, except from eBay hoarders. Fans bought them for the novelty and a lovely expression of conciliation, but the hats weren't big enough to hide their black hearts.

No one was truly a fan of both teams, nor can anyone be a real fan of two teams in the same sport. It's impossible. Sports fans grow up loving their team, and hating the other teams. It's a sport hate, not a true hate (though we all know how it can escalate), kind of like loving HBO over Showtime, Ford over Chevy. Kim over Khloe.

As ridiculous as my reasons for loving the Giants, so are my reasons for hating the A's: They were too good. They dominated professional baseball just as I was becoming a baseball fan about fifth grade, and I remember thinking that those neon yellow A's uniforms and all those walrus mustaches could not possibly be the meaning of baseball.

The A's dominated as I re-upped as a Giants fan, going to the World Series in 1989 and 1990. Somehow my brother-in-law had an extra ticket to game four of the A's-Cincinnati Reds World Series in Oakland. Somehow, he gave it to me. Such sustained surreality, sitting through that entire game, unable to utter a peep as the National League Reds carried out a sweep against the hometown team I hated so much.

(Trivial aside: Both those names, José Canseco and Will Clark, are still present in baseball. The charismatic former first baseman with the sweet swing, Will Clark works for the Giants as a community liaison. Canseco, he of the gigantic muscles whose Bash Brother was Mark McGwire, is still trying to play professional baseball, after all these years.) 

2013 nightmare

I run this cartoon now because the Giants just took two out of three games against the A's last weekend in their first meeting this season of interleague play. About this time of year, for wobbly marketing reasons, National and American league teams play each other throughout a month, and then resume sanity and finish the season against teams in their own leagues. The Giants will play the A's again, this time in Oakland, in June.

It works in the Bay Area, Chicago and New York, where fans in those areas and cities love their teams and hate the crosstown(Bay) rivals. Other interleague matchups are artificial, and I guess fans buy tickets just for the novelty of seeing opponents whom they would never see otherwise. But the Arizona Diamondbacks vs. the Seattle Mariners? Why?

Big changes await next season, when the Houston Astros will move to the American League, and each league will have 15 teams. Two equal but odd-numbered leagues will require National League teams to play American League teams throughout the season, wearing out the novelty and imperiling the National League's position as the Keeper of the Pristine Game: We may see the designated hitter rule apply to both leagues.

Next year, the cursed rule will have been in effect for 40 years. The American League uses it (in fact, I understand that every professional baseball league in the world, except for the National League, employs it) to replace the pitcher with a hitter during at-bats. Typically, teams put a power hitter in the pitcher's place, and put the designated hitter in the heart of the lineup; typically, the rule allows aging baseball players to extend their careers in the American League, where all they have to do in their final years is swing a bat.

The National League still requires the pitcher to bat, and pitchers usually bat last in the lineup. Typically, pitchers aren't good hitters, but sometimes pitchers can surprise fans with a liner that can deflate opponents, or will lay down a bunt to advance runners on base. Team managers have to work hard to make a pitcher's at-bat effective.

When American League teams play in National League ballparks during interleague, they can't use the designated hitter rule, which can put their hardly-ever-hitting pitchers at a disadvantage. Conversely, National League teams in American League ballparks can boost their lineups with an extra hitter.

I'm afraid next season the American League will complain about having to do without the designated hitter rule so often, and will try to have it applied to the National League as well. Fans who should know better, who want to see home runs over game strategy, will bark for it too.

Should it happen, the game won't be as much fun.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Whither thou goest

Dark and hunched, the forest seemed to be digesting this eerie, fetid river even as we paddled up from its mouth.

It made me think of our marriage.

Just where are we going? Pics courtesy of Nancy.
No, not the river (!) — the idea that we'd explore it together.

We've always been like that, even before we married: Eager to see what's around the corner, and decide what to do from there. Sometimes literally.

So what would be different on our anniversary trip to the coast? A full rare weekend stretched ahead of us; a weekend without meetings or obligations or goals or any other reason to do anything other than look around the bend, together.

"Which way do you want to go?"

"Let's go left."

(Our teasing variant is, "Whatever you want to do. It's your day.")

Who said what? Doesn't matter.

Left from where we stayed the night was north on Highway 1, to see what we had not seen, corner after unexplored corner.

Time and again, cars jammed right up to our rear bumper and we pulled over to let them pass. We weren't going for destination, just journey. Besides, we had no destination. North, so far. So many pullouts along the way; maybe the highway was built with us in mind.

Into Point Arena. Quick U-turn to get gas. $4.65 a gallon! We got only as much as would return us to civilization. The station had two mid-20th Century gas pumps; I'd almost forgotten how to work one. The station owner made change out of what he had in his shirt pocket.

Detour to the lighthouse. $7.50 to drive in and look around! Though we had walking-around money, it wasn't for walking around a lighthouse; we didn't know yet what it was for, though. Farther north.

Look what the people of Elk, Calif., have to put up with.
Past Manchester, near the beach where I once camped with my son's Boy Scout Troop. Up to Elk, where everything is named Greenwood, after the cove that shelters it.

Vaguely hopeful to happen upon open-water swimmers and maybe get in a quick dip, we explored the bluffs above Greenwood Cove, following abalone hunters in their wetsuits with long fins and glorified inner tubes strapped to their backs. They disappeared a few hundred feet down a steep bluff, belaying by relying on knotted ancient mariner ropes someone had tied long ago to tree roots.

Cuffy's Cove Community Cemetery is right next to Cuffy's Cove Catholic Cemetery. Must be an interesting daily existence around those parts. Catholics vs. community; those who spell it "Cuffey's Cove" on the wrought-iron gate vs. those who side with "Cuffy's Cove" on the painted signs. Maybe good fences do make good neighbors here.

Farther north, but not much farther.

We felt it time to turn back. Albion was next. "That's the ancient name for Britain," one of us said. Albion had no center, no place by which to turn around. But wait, far below the soaring wooden bridge over the mouth of the Albion River, a campground. And a sign that spun my heart, "Canoe and kayak rentals."

Two tries got us down to the campground. "Do you wanna get a canoe?"

"Uh …… sure." A lot of our adventures begin this way.

The host showed us the tide chart; her husband fetched us jackets and paddles. They were new to the job; neither had been upriver. Off we went up the Albion.

The river stretches 18 miles, I'm told, though I don't see how. It's really an estuary, a thing more of sea than of land. Tides pushed us up the brackish river. Every slow bend was choked with eel grass, laying its long fingers along the still surface, to catch the pollen and dust and detritus and slowly, slowly, slowly, turn it into new shoreline. We paddled up the narrow middle, the water creamy jade.

The Albion once hauled timber to the ocean, as did so many rivers along the redwood coast. Pilings marked the route, their whitened sides fringed with dead eelgrass, rattling like pom-poms in the sea breeze. Here and there the skeletons of boats lay where they decomposed in the water. Somewhere in the thick forest a railroad once ran.

I read that a former Reagan administration official proposed filling giant bags with fresh water from the Albion and Gualala rivers and ship them to San Diego. Sillier things have happened, I guess.

A saltbox house floated on the water, tethered to earth somewhere beneath the flotsam jammed against it. Maybe someone lay in a sleeping bag in a hammock in its rafters, clearly visible beneath a roof of translucent plastic panels. Maybe not. The handwritten sign on the door: "Respect my house."

Eighteen great blue herons stood in a row on one boggy bend of the river, looking guilty.

At lunch, unseen men began to hoot and whoop in the trees along one bank, and smoke from a fire on the next bend blew hard along the water surface. I ate calmly but thought about "Deliverance," and wanted to get out of there. The last campsite was at least a mile back.

"That's not smoke, that's mist," said Nancy. The hot boggy riverbends, we learned, steam and stink like compost piles in the cool breeze.  And when the hooting and whooping never became words, I realized they weren't what I feared. Ravens — those mimics — appeared from the trees, swooping and whooping.

Time to leave anyway. We pushed off from the muck, our paddle handles turning coal black from ages-old sludge.

Harbor seals welcomed us back to the river mouth, darting just ahead. Others just stared.

For our anniversary dinner, we had burgers and beer at a Gualala bar to watch the San Francisco Giants attempt a win. We listened to the rest of the game by driving around the strange home development known as Sea Ranch near Gualala. I hope the homes are spectacular inside; they are dreary and depressing and distressing, purposely unpainted and rusty, outside.

The weekend over, the spell broken, it was time to go home. We got into the car reluctantly.

"Which way do you want to go?"

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Same story, different viewpoint

Here is a rare moment to witness a story from a different perspective, a kind of "Rashomon" writ small.

My sister Tara delightedly — and delightfully — took up her side of The Story, the misadventure I wrote about last week in which Nancy and I began our relationship for certain, 29 years ago.

The climax of the story took place when I had to call home from Monterey and let my parents three hours south in Lompoc know I wasn't spending the night nearby at a friend's house on a mid-summer trip, as they might have been led to believe. 

Instead, I had been up to the northern end of the state, and floundered two long counties and a couple of winding roads away from home, out of gas and money, and needed rescue.

I called home to reveal where I'd been and beg for help.

"Monterey, California?!??" she blared, when I revealed where I was and what I'd been up to.

Tara and I predicted alike what would happen next — and we were both wrong: Here's her spin.
"Oh! I can remember this day! With steam coming from mom’s head and dagger eyes, mom came marching over to me as I stood in the neighbor’s yard. I thought, 'Oh, gawd … which lie has she caught me in? What did she find in my room? Which class assignment did I not turn in, and which teacher ratted me out? Oh, mother of gawd! What have I done?! I didn’t mean to spend my lunch money on candy!'
"As we stood face-to-face I had my rebuttals prepared and ready to be issued. Whatever was about to come out of mom’s mouth, I was prepared.

"And then … she barked the sweetest words that I have ever heard in my entire childhood: 'Your BROTHER … is in Monterey… and WE have to go get him!' All I could think was, I do not know where or what this Monterey is… but it will be known as my little slice of heaven. For TODAY is the day that I, Tara Turner will witness my parents verbally punishing my goody two-shoes brother! A day that I will revisit forever!

"As soon as mom told me this glorious news … I smiled from ear to ear and skipped if not danced a jig all the way to the back seat of our parent’s car. My smile remained way past Paso Robles.

"Why play the radio when I could enjoy the beautiful music of our parents' conversation in regard to the amount of disgust that they felt by being deceived by their son. 'What the hell was he thinking? Auburn? Why in the hell would he drive all the way to Auburn? And with no money!? Ya know, WE are not going to get home until 4 in the morning…I cannot BELIEVE this!!?'

"Ah, blast that music! Turn it all the way UP!

"As we approached your VW in the Hilton parking lot. I thought I should have brought some popcorn because cause this is going to be quite the scene. We all get out of the car and walked over to you.

"And then there was  … nothing? Nothing?! No harsh words? No tongue lashing? Come on!? You guys were all pumped up on the car ride up here, what happened?

"The fizzle had faded … the spark was gone, the passion lost. My moment of joy had been taken away. What in the Sam hell just happened? I had been tricked, fooled to believe that I would witness a great lashing. My smile had changed to the look of confusion. I had waited three hours… three hours … actually, my whole life!"
The same reputation I had … the goody two-shoes image that let me let out hundreds of miles of line until my whole plan tangled up in the works … should have ended my misadventure before it even began. Who would I have known somewhere in the county, where my parents thought I was going? Maybe they thought I had met a friend from college. It was completely out of character for me to go anywhere overnight.

What was I thinking?! What were they thinking?!

I'm thinking we would have missed out on a good story.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Monterey, California?!?!!!" Our creation story

"Tell the story," someone will say, on rarer and rarer occasion, and we tell it.

Most people and families, I expect, have the story. The fundamental tale, the progenitor, the what-if-it-hadn't-happened? story.

On the 27th anniversary of Nancy being willing to marry me, this is the story of how we became one.

It took place two years before our wedding — we have been together as best friends now more than half our lives.

Our friendship began when we worked together as journalism majors on The Mustang Daily at Cal Poly. I met Nancy while she was busy on deadline (to write the only story, she will add here, for which she won an award for student journalism). Soon that year we had more leisure time, and spent every moment we could together at Poly Royal, the May weekend when the entire campus turned into an open house (which is what it's called now anyway, since alcohol-fueled riots in 1990 nearly killed the event; another story for another time).

The school year ended. "Maybe I'll see you over the summer," I said. As soon as I said it, I wanted to make it true.

I had just gotten a shark-nosed Volkswagen squareback with my parents' help, so now I had motive and means. The opportunity came around my birthday. My loving family often and inexplicably felt need to mark my birthday by going to the Santa Barbara County Fair, which was held not in Santa Barbara (too picayune for that crowd) but in Santa Maria, in the north county. The fairgrounds was a glorified parking lot behind a JC Penney store.

Even if it was the fairest fair of all — which it wasn't; maybe 40th out of 58 counties — it was not the appropriate birthday destination more than once, not for anyone older than nine, anyway. For this birthday, I needed to escape.

Time to do something different, I told my parents. Just take a daylong drive, maybe. Being a lifelong Goody Two-shoes paid off: My parents said OK.

Get out of Lompoc by, oh, 8 a.m., make it to Auburn by lunch, say thanks and 'bye and drive back by around dinnertime. That was my plan — my deluded, naive, star-dusted plan.

The drive, we have learned over the many years, really takes more than seven hours, one way.

Lunchtime came and went on that first trip north, and I wasn't even halfway, having just dipped out of the Kettleman Hills into the San Joaquin Valley. Though not a stranger to this strange land — we'd gone through on many family trips to the Sierra — this was the first time I had a front row seat and had to pay attention to it all.

I might as well have been walking in space.

The miles droned on. The gray-white hills never seemed to move, nor did Auburn ever seem to get closer … until many, many hours after lunch, somehow I navigated my way through the macramé of freeway cloverleafs that was Sacramento, and ascended the foothills in the softening summer night.

Finally, Auburn! Now, how in the world to find Nancy?! In the dusk! I had packed neither telephone number nor address, just a map and memory of the city name. Of course, the only solution was to drive around in search of a miracle.

It came soon enough in the last of daylight, in the form of a green Volkswagen beetle, which crossed in front of me at an intersection. Who was at the wheel? None other than Nancy … well, maybe Nancy … unless it was her identical twin, Carol (sounds like a bad soap opera by now, doesn't it?). In the absence of any other sign or clue, I followed the VW to St. Joseph's Catholic Church, parked near her and followed her inside, taking a pew behind her and waiting until she finished her prayers to say:

"Excuse me, you look so much like Carol Lewis, it's scary." Clever me: If it was Nancy, she'd laugh and we'd hug. If it was Carol, she'd say something like, "I am Carol Lewis," and I'd explain everything. See!

(Later, Carol would say she thought I was a stalker intent on taking her tires; such innocents we were …)

Nancy was at work, Carol said, and Carol was on her way to work after Mass herself, but she would lead me back to her house and introduce me to their family.

All but two of the Nancy's 10 brothers and sisters were living at home then; older brothers Tim and Phil were out on their own. Without Nancy to guide and interpret, I was immersed in the chaos of a regular evening in the household — two small brothers, Stephen, just two or three years old, and Greg; a sister, Sharon, and brother, Joel, in the middle grades (I was like an insect in a jar, a thing of intense curiosity, to them); three more sisters, Kathleen, Joan and Susan, in high school (maybe Joan was home from college then?) futzing mostly unseen in the downstairs part of the house; and their mom and dad, all of whom welcomed me with warmth and expectation, and not a hint of trepidation that this guy who knows Nancy from college just drove nearly the length of the state unannounced to see her.

They would not let me leave after I saw Nancy. Stay the night, ridiculous child, they insisted.

I called my mom to say I'd be home the next day. "All right, I figure everything's OK," she said, not too put out that I deflected her pointed questions.

Carol returned from work and drove me to the pizza parlor where Nancy worked. I hid behind my cowboy hat as I walked in, but Nancy somehow suspected it would be me.

"How funny!" is what she said mostly, over and over. Back at her home, she reintroduced me to her family.

Next morning was my induction to the sophisticated choreography of getting a baker's dozen of people ready for early Mass. It was a process I'd join for many years.

After breakfast, we spent a final few hours down at the American River. Nancy accidentally threw her shoes into the water while throwing pebbles and had to wade in, in her Sunday dress, to retrieve them.

"Do you need some money?" she asked, saying goodbye. Nope! I said. I had my checkbook (This is a plot point; pay attention).

Off I went for home, only the roof of the car keeping me from leaving earth's orbit, a happy, happy guy. Since this was my first time driving the great continent by myself, I veered toward San Francisco, eager to go home by another way. With the last of my cash, I paid for gas in Pinole and turned west.

It turns out The City is blocked by toll bridges, each requiring toll. A strange and inconvenient concept. No cash in the ashtrays. Not a penny in sight. When you can't pay toll at a toll bridge, you don't get a just-this-once pass: The bridge keepers shut down all lanes so you can drive sidelong across lanes that aren't meant for driving sidelong. So the westbound mass of humanity, backed up near Oakland, watched me rattle along to the bridge headquarters building, where I wrote a check for 75 cents.

Beautiful city, though, San Francisco. Undeterred — reinvigorated, in fact! — I thought, Why not head to the coast and keep driving home along Highway 1? Yeah, why not? I'm king of the world!

The gas needle dropped. I was unafraid. I let it go to a quarter of a tank and pulled in to buy gas — where I learned that just that summer, the entire world decided it would no longer accept checks for gasoline purchases. This was not a matter that anyone would have thought I'd find newsworthy, apparently.

Vast quantities just waiting in my checking account to pay for fuel. OK, not vast, but enough. A fair exchange, check for gas. Can't you just take one lousy check? Just this once?! I'm good for it!

No! Also, no, no, no, no, no, no and no.

The needle dropped to empty as the miles passed, the inviting coastline turning lonely and cold and menacing, the hard sun shooting longer and longer glares, refusing to abate.

The needle dropped below empty when I coaxed the ter-pocketing car into the parking lot of the Hilton Hotel in Monterey at sundown. Clothes askew, sweat dripping from my body, my face red from screaming at humanity's blindness to my needs mile after mile, I looked like I ran all the way.

In those days:

(1) Pay phones existed,

(2) You could make a collect call for a dime, and

(3) The desk clerk at the Hilton wanted the dime back after I completed the call home. Hilton, above all, must balance its books.

"Where are you??" My mom asked.


Pause. "Monterey, California?!?!!!"

Appreciate, if you will, my nanosecond of restraint as I consider the wisdom of lightening the mood with the snappy, "No, Monterrey, Mexico (Duh!)" I settled on, "Yes," letting my mom have the funniest moment of the whole misadventure. I finally had to let them in on what I had done.

Since I was due in early the next morning to my summer newspaper job, my parents and sister had to make the three-hour trip from Lompoc to Monterey to retrieve me. Well, they didn't have to, but they did, bless them. Three hours and many miles served to soften my parents' mood (though my sister came along with the expectation of witnessing my evisceration), so that by the time they found me at 1 a.m., they were contemplative and maybe grateful that my absence was just a lot of fuss over a girl.

I rode with my dad for part of the way home, then switched cars with my mom at about Soledad, and attempted to deflect any lingering anger by asking them about their childhoods, filling in gaps about things I've always wondered. It worked: They were in a mood to talk, and I never had such uninterrupted time before or after.

After a couple of hours' sleep, I went to work and called Nancy later that day to tell her the whole story. I know that's hard to believe, but that's what the world was like without smart phones and facebook. News and trivia sometimes actually had to wait an entire day.

We married two years later in the church where I had met Carol on that first trip, 27 years ago this weekend. I proposed along the coast in Monterey, not far from where I borrowed 10 cents in hopes my parents would rescue me.

If you see us, pull up a chair and we'll tell you the story, complete with gestures and interruptions, maybe even song — a whole show.

Happy anniversary, Nancy!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Above the blue and windy sea

Time was — when our first was born — that people could predict my moods by the outcome of each San Francisco Giants game. Wins made me accessible and cooperative and accommodating; losses turned me into a hermit.

(Last night's embarrassing 9-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, would have meant a bad today for everyone.)

I was ardent. We almost named our son after Will Clark, the hootin' and hollerin' Giants hitting sensation and first baseman at the time, but we employed rare restraint at the last.

Time was that I spent a couple of cold October evenings fixing the water lines to our house (well, "fixing" sounds a lot cleaner and more definitive than what I was doing), and watching baseball playoffs through the living room window, which I had cleaned in the one spot that gave me a clear shot to the TV.

I've tempered my baseball behavior since. In fact, I'm not a baseball fan anymore; I'm a San Francisco Giants fan. The only other baseball I follow is the Giants' current opponent (the Dodgers this day). After the two teams part, I all but forget the other guys. Other sports hold no interest for me.

I try — try, mind you — to see baseball for what it really is: Enjoyable but meaningless entertainment.

Wins bring pleasure, but so — I've come to discover — do losses. It's the pleasure a good book brings as its drama unfolds. The games are daily serials. My heart races, my face reddens; I hoot at a good play and curse at a bobble. The game ends, I listen to the the radio analysis for a while, then it's over. On to life.

At its height — when the Giants won the 2010 World Series — I shared the elation with, what, maybe 2 million fans who follow the team from game to game? I didn't buy the commemorative sweatshirts or license plate frames or bobbleheads or any such thing, but I was happy to have watched with others as the improbable season unfolded, and wistful when it ended. And life went on.

The Giants this year are a torturous lot — "Giants baseball: Torture!" had been a catchphrase the last two seasons and it's an evergreen — so I now share the angst and wary hope of those 2 million other fans. Just a month into the six-month season, and the Giants have lost their closer, the weird-bearded marketing genius Brian Wilson, for the season because of a bum elbow, and are not sure when or whether they'll ever get their clutch hitting second baseman, Freddie Sanchez, who has been out since the middle of last season with a shoulder injury.

The deceptively powerful third baseman, Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, went down last week for six weeks to repair a broken bone in his left hand — the same bone that broke in his right hand this time last year. Their catcher, Rookie-of-theYear Buster Posey who missed more than half of last season when a home-plate collision crushed his ankle, is back and doing sorta kinda OK. Their aging first baseman Aubrey Huff fled the team in a panic attack, and is back now, tenatively. And this week their effective middle reliever Guillermo Mota got kicked out for 100 games allegedly for taking performance-enhancing drugs.

This list of woe is incomplete.

Even among the healthy, the roster evokes grievous tension. Ace pitcher and two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, who embodies "must-see TV" because of Koufaxian bow he makes of his body to throw the ball, is like a thoroughbred who must have perfect conditions and mindset in order to succeed. Veteran Cy Young winner Barry Zito, whom I admire for his work ethic and his service to wounded military veterans, comes to the mound as a different pitcher each time, bedeviling hitters with his magic-trick curveball one game, walking a conga line the next. Fans regularly rag him for the multi-million dollar salary they say he doesn't deserve.

I'm leaving out the good stuff, like usually dependable starters Matt "Hardluck" Cain (so many times the Giants have failed to give him the runs he needs during his mostly masterful performances) and youngster Madison Bumgarner. Shortstop Brandon Crawford is acrobatic in the field, though a victim of the youngster yips. Trade acquisition Melky Cabrera wows the crowd with his bat and with a frighteningly accurate arm from the outfield; speedy Angel Pagan was on a 20-game hitting streak (snapped, sadly) as of last night. Rookie Gregor Blanco brings speed, and the infield usually comprises first- or second-year players these days.

The result is hit-and-miss, with more errors than the Giants usually commit. Not much different than most teams. The season, as we tell ourselves, is early yet. Plenty of games left.

The "pleasure" in all this is watching to see if the Giants can finagle small miracles en route to the playoffs — or succumb to more than a century of statistical likelihood and common sense, finishing a respectable third or stinky fourth place.

Win or lose, the Giants will have entertained me. That's my game plan.

It helps that the Giants have the league's best storytellers (Vin Scully is the best alone, but the Giants broadcasters have him outnumbered.) On the radio, it's butter-voiced Hall of Famer Jon Miller and the Boy Wonder, Dave Flemming. On TV, most of the time, it's Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper, two former Giants (the former a one-time 20-game winner and All-Star) whose greatest value to the team is being former Giants who talk fan-to-fan with Giants viewers.

Some of summer's best moments are catching the Giants on the radio. Baseball games weave their tendrils into daily life, slyly. Just when you're lost to the drone of the day, the sudden barking narration of a double in the gap returns you to the game in progress. More than one long family drive was made shorter by extra-inning games of heartstop and heartbreak and derring and stupidity until, suddenly, resolution.

The best part of a Giants home win is the tradition of playing Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," over the public address system as fans file out. Radio listeners can hear the ending crescendo echo through the stadium as the broadcasters return from commercial for  for the post-game recap:
"Above the blue and windy seeeaaaaa …
When I come home to you, San Francisco,
Your golden sun will shine for me."
One-hundred thirty-four games left.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Get busy living …

"You awake yet?" my wife says, first thing.

I am. It's a quarter to six and I need to gear up for an early lake swim anyway.

Next, my wife tells me the value of our home continues to plummet, according to some online torture she consults, called zillow.com. As far as I can tell, it's a tool designed to calculate how much your home is no longer worth.

So began last Saturday morning.

(this post contains no answers, only more questions … )

I'm not sure why she tells me this, and I don't know what to do with the information. Nor do I ever, because it's not the first report I've gotten on the falling value of our home.

Naturally, I resort to wondering what might have been. We could have stayed in our first home, six miles to the southeast. It was affordable but small, getting smaller as our children grew. The basic ranch home, built in the late 1950s for the Air Force and civilian personnel who were pouring into the air base to the north. The previous homeowners had tacked on a lot of dodgy claptrap that the county inspectors somehow forgave in order for them to sell and us to buy. It was a container full of funk.

We would have made do there. Our kids would not have had to change schools. We could have put some money into rehabbing the place, and still saved ourselves some dough. We moved instead, buying as home prices rose. It's a sound house, requiring less vigilance from us home-repair dunces. Though the ideal size as our children matured, the house has quickly become too big with the kids away in college. As with our brains, we use only 10 percent of it.

(decisions, decisions … )

Shoulda coulda woulda. This mid-life crossroad (not a crisis, just a place) is chronic, and more disorienting than I expected. I've been at this intersection a long time, looking back on a road that has tucked here and there behind bluffs before disappearing into the horizon, a road that decisions built; looking out on roads that roll yet to new horizons, obscured quickly in haze.

Mere minutes after arising Saturday, I see a facebook picture that someone from high school had posted. The photo appears to show him giving a speech in front of a gigantic multi-screen presentation, amid an arena packed with people.

In high school I felt need to distance myself from him, for reasons I forget and which probably only make sense to high school freshmen. I remember he was ambitious in a napoleonic way, and I can see clearly now the local boy made good. I can see it because he often posts highlights of his global jaunts or speaking engagements, and his move to the thickly timbered northwest, where movie stars and other expansive personalities can spread out their stuff. I suppose I'd tell of my travels and achievements too, and really, what is so different from me pinning up drawings electronically and wondering if you think they're pretty?

These two odd, minor moments Saturday triggered feelings that have simmered for many years, wonderings about the measure of a person:

Have I done what I'm capable of doing and being? (No, surely not. ) What am I worth? (How do you measure? ) What could I be worth? (Well, now … ) And what is worth? (Damn good question! )

(Nothing new here, a feeling most people share, which feels like a seizing at this age. A finite set of tomorrows begins to arrange itself in view, and I wonder what purpose I have served, can still serve until then, what I didn't do so many yesterdays ago that I should have, and when. In the popular media, the mitigation is a fast sports car or a love affair. In my go-round, it's a blog post instead, and a lot of rumination. Nothing new here.)

A couple of high school teachers wrote in my senior yearbook that they expected to seeing me on the New York Times best seller's lists in short time. I suppose they were launching a flare high into the stratosphere and bidding me follow it. I didn't really have much of a game plan; loosely, it was get a journalism degree and eventually become a foreign correspondent, working at ever larger newspapers until I landed in another country.

But once employed, I wasn't as enamored of news reporting as my high school self had led me to believe — let this be a lesson: Don't base your career aspirations on the fractured reality of a TV show: "Lou Grant" was not a depiction of how a real newspaper works.

My career since then has been a pursuit of interests for which I am not entirely qualified but would like to be paid. All the time I have wondered whether I'm serving a good purpose, a right purpose, or whether I should be doing something else. Though I've peppered all that time with volunteer work of some type or other, I've been in a stall lately, helping few while I figure out some things.

Some days the highest purpose seems to be being useful. Most days it's useful to re-frame the questions. Shoulda coulda woulda should really be: I did, I am doing, I will do, the best I can.

I have a home; so many do not. I have my wonderful wife who is my best friend and makes our life work every day. I have children who really are our delight, whose own journeys out into the world are wonders to me. I have potential, still. When I wrote recently about my old banjo, my son said I should pluck it out and pluck it again. When I told a friend I'd like to do more traditional ink-on-paper illustrations, he said, "Why not?"

Yeah, why not? It's not easier said than done, but it's doable. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

I'm fortunate to know interesting people, and just bright enough to think I may learn something useful in their company. Among them, I think now of one who is intensely creative, who has built a life from an uncompromising practice of the craft of creativity; who is now trying to reconcile this principled creative life with the unavoidable reality of covering living expenses; who forges ahead, leveraging hope that he finds kindred spirits in the clients who uphold his principles.

I think of another, who has lived a couple of lifetimes worth of experiences, and who has amassed an enviable wealth of professional qualifications; who is now looking for work in this screwed-up economy; who operates on positive attitude, and not only works diligently to find a new position, but fills up his time mastering a multitude of passions in the wonderful event that they become his work.

Money is a damnable barrier for both — and for all of us — but it gives weight to my hope that they get busy and stay busy despite it.

As for a worthy life, I saw it late Sunday at church when an elderly couple made the slow trek all the way to a front pew, the husband bracing his way on a walker. The wife took a seat in the pew directly behind him, the better to care for him, lifting off his jacket, fanning the warm April evening off his neck with the weekly bulletin, alerting eucharistic ministers that he needs communion brought over.

Get busy living.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Best logo ever, military division

No disrespect to the honor and tradition of all military branches — and full disclosure, I'm an Air Force brat — but this is the best military logo going.

(Hey, no one disputed my last "Best logo ever" designation, so I figure I'm on a roll.)

Growing up at Vandenberg
Air Force Base, a missile installation,
I saw this ad nauseum without
really seeing it. The military is never
without its signs and wonders.
For one thing, it has passed the test of time — a sacrilegious declaration, I know, amid as many of two centuries of entrenched symbolism in the U.S. armed forces.

This has kicked around for 12 years. It passes my test: The logo caught my eye from the start, and made me stare at it like a work of art.

For another thing, it's a smart evolution from — and homage to — tradition.
The "'Hap' Arnold" wings

It nods to the force's founding, riffing off the "'Hap' Arnold" wings symbol used by the U.S. Army Air Corps before it split off to become a fly-alone armed force in 1947. Harold Harley Arnold was commanding general of U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.

Graphically, it's complex in its simplicity, paring the image to the barest essentials.

Simple geometric shapes speak to me of the stealth age of air warfare, and in fact the logo was meant to attract young people to the force with a sleek, modern look. The bars suggest chevrons.

The two small triangles at the top ignite the logo for me, suggesting the swept wings of a raptor lifting, or steadying to grab its prey. The quadrangles that complete the negative space forming the star also create the raptor's splayed tail feathers. Since the falcon is the nickname of the Air Force's F-16 fighter jet and the mascot U.S. Air Force Academy, I figure it wasn't a random mistake that simply looked cool.

The Air Force has an explanation for each and every shape within the symbol — overkill, really — which you can read here, if you really want.

Together, the logo forms a V — or a military honor draped around uniformed shoulders. The wings are easy to spot at small sizes, a cardinal requirement of a good logo.

The logo works just as well in reverse (not easy to do in creating a logo) and with some pizazz.

I know a lot of Air Force personnel, particularly retired G.I.'s, hated the new logo. Change is hard. But this logo carries their legacy forward.

This is not a tract for or against military defense, simply a critique of a symbol. With fewer than a dozen simple geometric shapes so arranged, this one deeply embodies the mission of an entire military branch.

Disagree as you may. Also, clue me in to the logo's designer; I'm having difficulty tracking it down.