Friday, August 31, 2012

Getting along swimmingly

See no evil, hear no evil, smell no evil:
Being a Giants fan in the home stretch
requires iron fortitude and
• Keep Calm and Swim On

'Tis the season for the world's most stalwart swimmers to complete or try lunatic expeditions.

I say that with the utmost jealousy.

One guy this weekend, Jamie Patrick, (beware this link: It will absolutely blast a song by the pop group Fun, and the off switch is way down at the bottom of the page) will attempt to swim the circumference of Lake Tahoe, about 68 miles. He has swum twice Tahoe's length, 44 miles at one go, and last year swam more than 100 miles down the Sacramento River.

I follow his progress through Facebook. I also follow a doctor, who amazed me for his daily reports of swimming at least six miles in the ocean, apparently by himself. I wondered how he found the time, for one, and the courage, for another.

He did all that to train for a crossing of the English Channel, the Mt. Everest for swimmers, as I've heard it described, a 21-mile tidal battle that requires swimmers three times farther from England to France than a gull might fly.

Another swimmer from down the doctor's way, San Diego, also completed the English Channel. On a page called "Did You Swim Today?" on which swimmers from all over the world post their jaunts big and small, she wrote
Not today but yesterday I swam from Engand to France (-:
Still others whom I follow on Facebook have completed solo or relay crossings from one of the Channel Islands onto shore in Los Angeles or Ventura counties.

Dyana Nyad last month tried a fourth, and maybe last, time to cross through sharks and jelly fish and storms from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Florida, 103 miles.

People may congratulate me for my daily one or two miles in the nearby lake by telling me how few people would really even get into the cold water, let alone swim that distance, which is always a struggle for me. But I'm in awe of so many swimmers who can swim day and night, thousands and thousands of strokes, and still emerge from the brine at the end of their goal.

• Keep Calm and Watch the Giants

I've let those Giants get to me, after all. I greet wins with calm, because that's what I expect, wins. I curse losses and errors and a paucity of hits and runs, because the Giants are supposed to win and hit and score and play perfect defense.

Why? I don't know. Win or lose, I still get nothing for it, as I've said before.

The Giants swept the Houston Astros this week, something they should have done, though each game proved a battle. They face the Chicago Cubs over the weekend, and then the Arizona Diamondbacks early next week. With a Los Angeles Dodgers loss, the Giants could pull away to 4 1/2 games up in the National League West.

It's the home stretch and they're fighting, and it's almost hard to believe. I didn't write about the Giants losing its star left fielder, Melky Cabrera, for 50 games (and probably his Giants career) for taking synthetic testosterone. Everyone else was writing about it, and I wasn't going to add anything new. But more than hits, Cabrera brought a joy to his play, smilingly mocking opponents, holding the baseball for an extra moment and daring baserunners to try an extra base before he mowed them down with his arm.

His joy was juiced, and now it looks like he'll never play for the Giants again. On the other hand, the Giants welcomed relief pitcher Guillermo Mota after a 100-game suspension for taking performance-enhancing drugs, and the Giants say they're convinced the guy took one of his children's steroid-tinged cough medicines by mistake. OK. Who knows?

The Giants acquired right fielder Hunter Pence from the Phillies a month ago. The guy always seemed to hit at will against the Giants when he was an opponent, but he hadn't really started to hit for the Giants until this week, against his old home team, the Astros. Until then, he has become almost unwatchable, the antsiest, most jittery player I've ever seen. The man can't stand still, and gets in the batter's box rollicking like a washing machine with an uneven load. He swings as hard as he can at everything, chases breaking balls in the dirt, strikes out and then returns to pace the dugout like a caged animal.

The Giants act like a team betrayed by Melky Cabrera and now on an angry mission to prove he wasn't the team, and they're finding ways to win despite flubs and foul-ups and bad breaks, which is what the top teams do in the home stretch. Now it's a race to the playoffs with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have paid huge sums to get the players that will overtake the Giants. So far for the Dodgers, not so good.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How to succeed in journalism without really trying

Celebrating my departure — and mourning my wife's — from The Hanford Sentinel 25 years ago, the editor in chief told my wife over beers that I was a lazy son of a bitch.

Rarely did I get in the picture, as when Gary Feinstein shot me looking over a
dairy veterinarian's shoulder. He has cut a hole in the side of a Holstein cow
and is reaching in with his plastic-wrapped arms to untwist her stomachs,
a not uncommon malady among cud chewers. I wish I knew
the doc's name;  he was calm and friendly and suffered this fool gladly.
No news, this — from a boss paid to know news.

I plead guilty, with aggravating circumstances. You say lazy — I say inclined to expend copious amounts of energy to avoid undesirable work. Such as whittling down that last sentence.

Of course, most reporters looked lazy alongside my wife. Hesitant to hire her at first for fear of nepotism, The Sentinel regretted letting her go — I had a new job in Sacramento — for the sheer breadth of news she wrote, and her plainspoken coverage of county politics.

I wanted to be like her. Since high school, I knew — knew passionately — that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter, and did little else but train to become one. Until I became one, when I changed my mind. Ten years later, my body finally followed.

I like writing. It's the reporting I never got hang of. I wasn't much for amassing facts, and committed many sins of omission. I caused more than one post-election correction when I missed a precinct or an entire city's voting results. I got sick calling up families about their newly departed. Farm prices and policy, the subject for which I had been hired (not because I pretended expertise but because no one else pretended interest), mired me in a great big incomprehensible manure, and I was no match. 

Maybe I'd have enjoyed myself at a rewrite desk, had I landed at a paper large enough to have one.

Instead I became the master of day-in-the-life stories. They got me out of the office, which was mutually beneficial — they gave me something different to talk about back home at dinner, for one thing — and let me spend long periods just getting to know people and what they did. I was a gossamer Charles Kuralt, so long away on assignment that I was writing the stories in my head while I lived them.

The day with the veterinarian, chronicled above, was a short stint compared to others I did; I think Gary the photographer met up with us for just part of the visit, for the bovine outpatient procedure, but then took off to meet some deadlines. I stuck around for most of the veterinarian's day.

One of my first stories at the Hanford paper came from an interview with a dairy couple, who gave me directions to their place, just outside of town. I turned the wrong way first thing and followed the unbending road an hour west — "out of town," I decided, must be the loosest of loose terms around these parts — before I finally became convinced of my fallibility.

Though deeply embarrassed for being two hours late and having established my reputation as a bumbling reporter, I was not sad. I had seen some country I mightn't have otherwise, and I got to marvel at the intransigent planning of central San Joaquin Valley roads that would not bend unless forced by river or ditch. Two hours lost in a day but preserved in my memory, for no other reason than to entertain myself.

Civil War re-enactors once staged a battle at a county park near Hanford, and I stayed all day to watch each skirmish and immerse myself in the punctilious devotion with which Civil War aficionados immerse themselves. One soldier died over and over in battle, and he became my lead (or lede, the opening paragraph, as reporters sometimes spell it). Plus, I got to use the word "watchfires," a bonus.

I once spent 12 hours with a dairy family, starting at 4 a.m. in western Kings County when son No. 2 began moving the family's Holsteins toward the barn for the first milking, continuing through a table-busting breakfast, paperwork with son No. 1, artificial insemination, a second milking, an overview of the Dairy Princess competition with Only Daughter, feeding the herd and fixing equipment.

I simply time-stamped each section and offered the insider's view of a typical day at the dairy. It was for a special section celebrating June as dairy month, I had a lot of space to fill, and I had never seen a story that simply described what went on in a dairy.

When I discovered a tree-fruit grower who also owned his own sprint car racing team — and built the cars himself — I spent as many days with him as he could stand. Sprint cars are snug little high-powered buggies topped with gigantic airfoils and shod with two larger tires on one side to better circle the dirt track, and they're a huge deal in Hanford.

The day-in-the-life story I wrote about him started at his nectarine ranch and ended late at night at the Kings County sprint track, where his driver flipped the team car high into the air in a collision on a far turn, and the owner ran across the infield like a wild man, tools falling out of pockets as he flew.

Writing for The Sentinel finally gave me a chance to scratch the itch for one desolate intersection of two lonely highways that has fascinated me since childhood. Year after year, on our way to some High Sierra camping trip or another, we passed the intersection of highways 33 and 41 with its lonely café and junklot.

I thought it might even have been the inspiration for Rebel Corner in John Steinbeck's "The Wayward Bus," until a bemused Steinbeck expert talked me down.

Thermos ™©® full of coffee, I drove out there before dawn one day and just sat and listened and asked and watched and photographed. I met the owners of the café and their few regulars. The concentration of fast-food restaurants and gas stations on Interstate 5 10 miles northeast had long since immobilized this corner of the world, but some remained faithful.

The fenced-in curio lot across the street, which sold brass giraffes and sunglasses and dishwasher-sized flower pots, was owned by the umpteenth person by the time I wandered by to write it all down. Everyone at that intersection seemed to be holding onto something, to keep from being blown away by the constant wind.

Eventually they all did blow away. A new, bigger café and store and gas station stands empty now where that wheezy little café had been, and the curio lot left no trace.

I won a feature writing first-place award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association for that bit of laziness.

Get me rewrite.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A heel that won't wound

No one could tell a man was murdered in our neighborhood this week. Not even Tuesday morning, less than a day after the killing.

Monday afternoon came with sound and fury. Now it's like Monday never happened, like the wound sealed closed. But not really. 

Monday afternoon clogged our dog-leg cul-de-sac with sheriff's patrol cars, two special crime investigation wagons, an unmarked but extravagantly strobe-lit law enforcement pickup truck, an ambulance, and at least a dozen sheriff's deputies, who crime-taped the front of the residence where the news reported a man shot in the back, across the street and one duplex down from our house.

More deputies made a gate of crime tape at the entrance of our street, policing traffic and keeping television crews from even getting a shot of the crime scene.

A deputy walked up to me as I stood on our porch looking on. She wanted to know why I hadn't answered her earlier knock, and seemed surprised that I did not hear gunshots or a car speed away. (Our house is blessed and cursed with being very quiet when the windows are shut and the AC buzzes in the heat).

"So … what happened?"

"I don't know," the deputy said.

I missed it all. Our dog spent the day cowering at whatever she heard, but we humans missed it.

During the daylight hours, deputies ran back and forth between their vehicles, some taking boxes of evidence out of the residence, others taking witnesses to their patrol cars, making them sit with the doors closed while they questioned other witnesses, then replacing those witnesses with other witnesses.

More deputies took pictures of witnesses, sprayed witnesses' hands with something. Still more deputies stood together in the street, talking. After a couple of hours, six detectives, identical except for the solid color of their dress shirts, walked into the cul-de-sac. Some went into the residence, others stood with the black-uniformed deputies. Someone had set up a folding table near a patrol car, with a water jug on the table. The ambulance had disappeared without fanfare within the first couple of hours.

A few other residents of the street stood on the sidewalk looking in. Our daughter searched online to get the basics. The shooting opened the 5 o'clock news, but we missed that too; too brief, onto weather and brush fires.

By late evening, the crime tape remained draped around the residence and only the crime scene wagons remained. By morning, all was gone.

The newspaper said the dead man didn't live at the residence. The morning-after story suggested someone had come to the residence inquiring about a Craiglist item or a personal watercraft. The second-day story suggested the dispute was over drugs; that the dead man had a prior felony drug conviction.

The shooter may have sped off in an SUV. Someone else might have been with the shooter. It's all so unclear.

This is all I can think to do about it. Though I couldn't bring myself to bring it up in a conversation with swim buddies at the coffee shop, for example, I write about it in the most public way I know. My motives are unclear.

Standing out in the street didn't seem right. To do what? Gawk in the direction of the house? Exchange "What's this world coming to?" or "Kids these days, I tell ya," with others? Talk about reviving a Neighborhood Watch program? A Neighborhood Watch sign hangs rusted over on a lamppost.

(We had a program in our old neighborhood, where we expected shootings that never came, but the program withered under the hype and hyperventilation of neighbors who envisioned apocalypse and advocated armed vigilance.)

We don't know anybody at the residence across the street and one duplex down. We don't know too many other people on the cul-de-sac, for that matter. Is that typical? I'm afraid it might be.

We know the neighbors on either side; one family fairly well; of the other, we know a few of the people and can identify some of the others who live there; we know the dog's name there.

We know the father of a young family from Russia across the street, and wave hello to his small children when they are in the front yard. We know a man by name at the end of the cul-de-sac who walks its length back and forth each morning. My wife knows a few others from some years back, when she was home getting chemo treatments. That's it. We rarely even drive our cars to the bottom of the cul-de-sac, only four more houses deep.

We are bad neighbors. We have become what I feared: Strangers on a street, impotent in the aftermath of a tragedy.

The newspaper described ours as a quiet street. It is. The worst I could say about it is that one resident drives way too fast, as if he's pulling into a NASCAR pitstop, and his newly minted driver daughter has picked up dad's habits.

We have a lot of cars on our short street, but that's mostly a function of duplexes on one side of the street, which don't provide enough parking. Renters fill the duplexes on one side of the street; a few own the duplex, live in one and rent the other. Most own their homes on the other side of the street.

Teenage drivers turn their stereos off as soon as they park on our street. People hang out in front of their duplexes, but talk quietly.

The newspaper said some residents have lived here for a couple of decades, which may be so; that everyone knows everyone here, which is not true. I think that's one of the truisms news reporters apply to neighborhoods when they don't know any better, the same way they like to call a town a "sleepy little hamlet."

Quiet returns. The Russian father lets his children ride their toy vehicles in the street in front of his duplex while he putters in the garage. People move about at the residence where the murder occurred, driving back and forth on errands.

Here's the thing: Now I notice people moving about at that residence. I let them be before, without cause to behave otherwise. Nothing indicates the crime: No flowers or memorials; the victim didn't live there, may have been a stranger. I don't know. Did someone clean up after the crime? Maybe it happened during the investigation? I don't know.

I can't go over and introduce myself to the people who live there, without delivering the very clear message: I'm watching you. What have you brought upon this neighborhood? I can't even say it's warranted. What would they hear if I just said "hello?"

So I write this instead. And I mow our crunchy yellowing lawn at the height of the heat. Ratty as it is, the lawn always looks a bit better after it's mowed.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

History puts a saint in every dream*

Though fun at first, the welcome strangeness of it all suddenly squeezed my innards under its own gravity.

All it took was the photograph.      (not this one … )

In the photo I'm describing, my dad balances on the arm of a stuffed chair, leaning across its back. His hair is Air Force neat and 1950s slick, and he's wearing clothes I know only from old photos: Sport coat, thin tie, creased and cuffed slacks. He was dapper in the day I never knew, a grilled-T-bone-topped-with-buttered-mushrooms-and-golden-beer-in-a-pilsner-glass, NCO Club kind of guy.

His grin — his "Ain't that a kick in the head!" grin — I knew from life. Chin tucked just so, eyes beaming just below his black eyebrows at something off to the photographer's left, he looks exactly like a prankster awaiting payoff for a well deployed practical joke.

Arrayed in the chair before him, in a kind of pieta, are a woman seated, with a girl about five years old sitting to her right, and another girl about three perched sideways across her lap. The girls wear matching red jumpers and light blue turtlenecks. The woman looks pleased but reserved, her mouth a small smile, her eyebrows exotic arches, her cheekbones high and round. She has dark short wavy hair. Her salt-and-pepper woolen skirt cascades down her legs.

The older girl has the woman's wavy hair and my dad's smile. It's a wide, almost laughing smile. She beams straight at the camera, along with the woman. The toddler is cradling a doll and looking off at whatever my dad sees — both a bit oblivious to their role in this family portrait.

A portrait of my dad's family. The family begotten before my family.

And across the table in the coffee shop, two days shy of my 50th birthday, I first met the five-year-old from the picture. My half-sister.

I'll call her Julia, which is not her real name: Though this is my story, it's not mine entirely, and important parts must be left for others to tell, if and as they wish.

Julia is 10 years and a month older than me. The bridge and line of her nose remind me of my dad's. I spent our lunch between conversations trying to spot more similarities, other bridges, other links.

I have known about my dad's other family since I was 26. My sister, looking through family files for college information, had found out a few years before me, and at the time got as much information as our mom would allow; but my sister kept her knowledge a secret from me until I learned from my dad; this is partly her story too, and her part is not mine to tell.

It's possible I might never have found out, but for two events:

(1) My dad nearly died under anesthesia during an attempted operation for prostate cancer and

(2) My parents learned from Julia that each of my dad's daughters from this marriage (he had three) had at least one child with a genetic condition resulting in disability, and my dad appeared to carry the condition.

Whether the near-death experience compelled or scared my dad to come clean, I won't really know. But on a visit home he took me along on his part-time retirement gig moving cars for auto dealerships, and used the long drive to unfold the story.

As I remember it, he said his wife and daughters had settled near an Air Force base in northern California, and he was sent overseas. On his return, he said, his wife had already taken up with another man, and set up household with the daughters, and he thought it best to back out of the picture and let this new family be.

Julia told me a different story, one she got from her mother — that the family went to join my dad overseas, where he must have "gotten lonely" (Julia's words) and been discovered in a relationship, and her mother put an end to the marriage and returned to the states.

The last he knew, my dad said, the girls (not "my daughters") may be living somewhere in the northern California area.

But the postmarked envelope Julia brought to the coffee shop, which contained the photograph and some letters, shows my parents knew exactly where she lived, anyway — just miles from where I am. All these years.

Julia had called me a few weeks before, on a lark, checking on one more Shawn Turner in the umpteen online databases who might be the Shawn Turner she knew might be her half-brother.

I vaguely knew the girls' names; it was Julia who finally told me her mom's name. I hadn't asked my dad. In fact, I hadn't asked him many questions at the time. I'm not sure why, though I remember feeling he must have had good reason for not having told me before, must have carried pain, and I thought maybe better to let it rest and not pain him more. Since he told me he wasn't sure where the girls lived anymore, I figured the issue was moot anyway, that we'd never cross paths, or know it if we did.

Julia and I decided we should meet, and she should meet my wife.

Her first contact with me couldn't help but raise all those questions I refrained from asking nearly a quarter-century ago. As near as my sister and I can figure, what happened simply was this: Our mom, for whatever reason, didn't want this other family to be part of our family, so it didn't exist. Why? I don't know, and I don't think we'll ever really know. My parents are dead, and Julia said her mother, still living, has never wanted to talk about it. "What do you want to bring that up for?" is how Julia says her mother dismisses the matter.

I'm left suspicious of my already suspect memory; though I recall news of the genetic condition, I don't remember where I learned it. My wife has fire-bright memory for such details, but neither she nor I remember ever being told directly it, certainly not before we had children. Not before we could consider the implications.

Maybe the best knowledge at the time is that I couldn't have carried the condition, but that is not certain, either.

We are left to conjecture, and we are in danger for it. Our memories, partly manufactured and parts of them now re-manufactured, are fooling and failing us; we risk wondering what it is we really know; we risk filling in the gaps with stuff of our own making, to poison or unnecessarily ennoble the whole of our memories, and the people who fill them.

What I know is this: I gained and Julia lost. What I mean: I grew up in a classic nuclear family in a nuclear age. I was raised in a closed unit, with a sister, two parents 'til death did they part, and a dog in a ranch home in small-town California. Julia was old enough to know one dad, who went away for reasons unclear, under cover of a story meant to mollify or stultify a little girl, and she grew up with another dad, whom she called by his nickname, not "dad," and who with her mother produced more children. She is the only one of the three girls, she said, who has any real memory of my dad.

I had nothing to miss. Julia spent her lifetime wondering about her dad … my dad. She remembers rough-housing with him. Since he was in the Air Force, she imagined he might be a pilot, and that any plane overhead might be the one he was flying, she told us. Or maybe he was a firefighter, which was correct. Maybe he was close by. She wondered.

She grew up with the impression that my dad was a stern taskmaster, a portrait her mother painted, apparently. I'm still trying to devise a way to convey to her that, though he had expectations of his children as head of the household, and all that "Father Knows Best" claptrap, he was quick to laugh, to become an imp in front of the camera — just as in the family portrait she carried. We brought many photos with us to bolster that concept — photos that included my parents with my children, which must be odd for her to see — but I don't think that's enough. What would work is what we can't provide: A chance to spend time with my dad in the flesh.

Backtracking through third-party anecdotes, I've formed the picture that my dad wanted to be a part of the girls' lives — wanted to bring them for a summer visit once — but my mom would not allow it. Yet I don't know, won't ever really know, if that's really true.

Nor will we ever truly know why, and who thought what, and who did — or did not — to perpetuate this camouflage of facts.

Dangerous as it is, I can't help but conjecture: What would have been the big deal, really? Given the myriad family dynamics these days, and the searing family heartbreaks that happen every day everywhere, this is a piffle. This is truly light reading.

What would have been so wrong with my parents telling my sister and me, early on? "Kids, dad was married before and had three daughters." They could have told us the marriage didn't work out (or however my parents might have wanted to frame it); the mother and girls live in (wherever) with (whomever). "Maybe we'll introduce them to you, we don't know; we'll see; someday. For now, we just thought we should tell you."

Then on we would have gone with our lives.

Maybe moving on wouldn't have been so easy. We'd ask questions over time. Certainly, my sister and I would wonder about these girls; I'd realize I was not the oldest, though I'd still carry the weird notion that as the only son, I would carry on the family name. (Though it turns out mine is not really the family name, but that's another story for another time.) But I think we would have figured out a way to live with the idea.

I might justify the secrecy because it was a different time — except it wasn't really. Divorce and family breakup (if that's what this might have been called) were more taboo, maybe, but not uncommon. I wish, without justification, our parents had given us more credit to understand what was going on and absorb it.

Nor can all this help but color the past; I'm searching back through the rabbit warren of my mind for clues and cues. I think of how reticent my dad was to talk about his family, how except for one time when I was a toddler and he and my mom brought me along, he visited his mom and aunt and stepdad alone, taking Air Force "hops," or space-available flights; I wonder if, rather than catching himself in unguarded talk and revealing what he didn't intend, he decided it best to talk as little as possible about the past, his past.

What did the secret serve? To protect us kids? To protect this family? From what? My mom worked hard to raise us, valued education, valued knowledge, took care of us, did all those things good moms do for their families, from what I can remember. She had the quirks that I figured typical moms would have, too, being overbearing at times, capricious at key moments (like the time our trailer was packed and we were literally stepping out the door to camp on a beach for the first time, and mom decided right then we weren't going; no explanation, just slammed doors and a day of silence.)

Whatever was past had been extremely well hidden from me; I try to put my parents in a new context: My mom gracious in the company of others but reserved, who favored introspection; I think I take after her, while my sister, with whom I grew up, is more garrulous and quick to laugh, like our dad. Were they both thinking about this other family over time? When they were having fun with us as a family, were they picturing this other family and wondering what they were doing? What must it have taken to blot out all of it?

I return to the moment when I was maybe 8 or 9 and we had driven north to visit an aunt and uncle and two cousins; our aunt is loving and our uncle, tall and handsome and smiling, seemed always to make sure we kids were laughing; we cousins were close, despite our selfish spats because were just little kids. I had always looked forward to our visits.

As we spilled out of the car onto the walkway that visit, ready to run into our relatives' home, my sister and I were stopped by our mom's announcement: That my aunt and uncle had just gotten a divorce and our uncle wasn't living there anymore, and we were not to speak a word of it.

I didn't really know what divorce meant, but I felt woozy. It was like being told to visit but not have fun or talk. Imagine the awkward weekend, when I spent more time than usual coloring a Blackbeard the Pirate book, trying and failing to think of things to say to my cousins that wouldn't upset them or defy my mom.

We move on, a new turn in our lives. No telling where it goes. We'll stay connected with Julia, maybe one day meet the other sisters, the youngest of whom is only four years older than me. Maybe our talk with move past this strong and strange connection, and onto the lives we have lived from there … moving gingerly through the minefield of what-ifs.

* "Time" by Tom Waits

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

swimmed swammed swummed

Found this boulder in the middle of the Umpqua River; glad I
didn't find it with my nose …
Vacation leftovers:

• Overwhelming thought: Homeward bound on my 5,000-meter race up in the Cascades a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't outswim the thought of how they do it … how all those swimmers can swim 20-plus miles across the daunting English Channel ('tis the season), the Catalina Channel, Lake Tahoe, or even a 10k race. I'm drained completing three miles.

Retroactively thunk thought: Haley Anderson from Granite Bay (just a 20-minute drive from where I live) won the silver medal in the 10k race at the London Olympics. She finished the 6.2-mile open water swim just four-tenths of a second (!) behind the Hungarian gold medalist, Eva Risztov. Over the final 1,000 meters, the 20-year old swimmer churned from fourth to fractions of a second behind the winner. Anderson swam the race in one hour, 57 minutes, 38 and six-tenths seconds. That is still faster than I managed to swim half that distance up in the Cascades. I wonder if she'd join our ragtag swim group out on Lake Natoma.

Haley's older sister Alyssa shared a gold in the women's 4 by 200 freestyle relay at the London Olympics. Two Olympic medalists from one games, from one family. What're the odds? Alyssa can swim with us too, I guess.

• Canoe!: Canoes outnumber kayaks 10 to one atop cars in mountainous central Oregon (quite the opposite in my neighborhood). Though I like kayaks, I love canoes. It's tradition for our family (well, me, and sometimes my wife) to blurt "Canoe!" at the sight of one atop of a vehicle, the same way someone might say "Puppy!" (And Rat, according to Stephan Pastis' "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip, defines tradition as "a reason for doing something you can no longer think of a reason for doing.")

A canoe contains romance for me, and since I declare myself fairly accomplished at steering one, I yearn for quiet waters to rove on early mornings. My one material longing would be for an 18-foot Kevlar™®© or carbon fiber canoe, luggable by one person, with which to wander backwaters so deep the mosquitoes could airlift me back to my car.

I long for such a canoe the way some might crave a wristwatch that tells time at 20,000 times the price of a Timex™and is only recognizable by others wearing similar watches … I'm sorry: Timepieces.

•  Stay out of my summer!: C'mon, NFL, your meaningless preseason games have taken over the sports media. Your games, a week hence, are listed in the broadcast schedule in my paper above today's baseball games, and Major League Baseball is fighting down the home stretch, with the Giants, my favorite team, at first place in its division, the drama intense. Baseball stays out of football's way, for the most part. Why can't football go dark for another month or so? I know this happens every year, but it's on my last nerve this year.
• Shows what I know: Someone please enlighten me: How did central and eastern Europe come to dominate men's water polo? It's not the sport I'd imagine that part of the world to champion, but I'm picayune and too narrow minded. Croatia won the gold, Serbia the bronze. Croatia, Serbia and Hungary destroyed the U.S. men's team, the golden boys of swimming pools and SoCal beaches (again, picayune pea brain, that's me), made 'em look like they had just picked up the game the week before. What's the evolution of water polo in Europe?

• Shows what I know, II: Team handball would wear me out, surely, but there's something off about it. Is it the progenitor for all similar sports? Did someone playing it say, "This is fun and all, but if you really want a challenge, we should try to play without using our hands (soccer), or move the ball with sticks (hockey), heck strap on some skates (ice hockey) and make it really interesting. Did Dr. Naismith decide, "Let's shrink the goal to a tiny hoop and require players who wanted to keep the ball had to bounce it all the time?" Someone else must have said, "If you really want a challenge, let's do this in the water," and gave birth to water polo.

Having come late to team handball (and seriously doubting I'll see it again until four years hence) I'm reminded of finally seeing "High Noon," the seminal man-alone-against-the-world Gary Cooper western, and thinking it hokey because I grew up on a steady diet of Gunsmoke, Bonanza and every other movie and show turned original movie moments into clichés.

• Crass act: Why do athletes pretend to bite their medals? Whether this gesture derives from fact or Dickensian fiction, it's meant to show how people might tell if their gain is real gold, since the soft metal would show teeth marks; it implies the giver might have cheated recipients. Though the geasture might have lost its historical meaning, and athletes and photographers think it may be cute, it's rude to receive such a high honor, one of a kind, crafted to celebrate athletic achievement, and put it in your mouth. We get a two-year reprieve from seeing that.

• Fish, meet pond: Time was I swam in pools only because I knew no other. Now I'm in lakes most of the time and in a pool almost never. Stopping over in Eugene where our daughter goes to school, I ran out of swim choices except for a pool, within walking distance. The online schedule listed open times and prices, but did not specify that two separate swim teams would be going through their paces during lap swim and using all lanes. Lanes were marked "slow" "medium" and "fast" and I had no idea what the teams really meant by that. Finding a man alone in a lane, I got permission to swim with him, but he swam in circle within the lane, rather than up and down one side, so I would have had to look for him constantly throughout my swim because I didn't know how fast he swam and whether he would swim up against me. Plus, the pool water wasn't all that clear, and the high water temperature in the cool morning left the surface in a foam of mist, so I couldn't see much. I was out in 10 minutes. Keep your pool; give me the open water any time.

• Back home: It's a big change from 4,893 feet above sea level, to 128 feet above. Lake Natoma is so much easier to swim in, unlike the mountain lakes on our vacation. Not easy; it's never easy for me. But it feels so much better.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Best logo ever (for three weeks, anyway) We're-Making-the-Stuff-So-We-Can-Put-Whatever-We-Want-on-it Olympics Merchandise division

An Olympics contrarian, I might as well go all the way and say I like Nike's Team USA logo designed for the basketball and track team uniforms, made from recycled plastic bottles.

Many hate the logo.

Google "Nike USA logo," and the first result you'll find is from a sports blog: "Nike's Team USA basketball logo is hideous."

Too much emphasis on the S, says the blogger, because no one calls it the United STATES of America. Too much like a superhero emblem, says another critic.

Though I wonder idly why U.S. athletes don't have a more, you know, uniform look, I won't go as far as a Fox News, which declared the U.S. women's gymnastics team's fuchsia leotards unpatriotic.

Crown me king of U.S. Olympics, and I'd impose this logo on the uniforms … mainly because its power snuck up on me.

Especially the alternate usages, one with the "u" and "a" upturned like wings (and framing pectoral muscles), the other with "u" and "a" swept down like a chevron. The larger symmetrical "s" creates an anchor and point for each unified V shape. The angles of the letterforms align to create a typographic unit.

The whole logo buzzes slightly like an Escherian optical illusion, looking, every millisecond or so, three-dimensional, pushing in, pulling out, across the chest.

Simple and clever. I don't care what the critics say: That I've got too much spare time on my hands.

Yeah, it looks like a superhero emblem. For this instance I say, so what?

Had I truly time to waste, I'd wonder what's with all the bright yellow Nike track shoes.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Swim swam swum

Random unsubstantiated observations (to accompany randomly placed art):

The end of the end: The thought hit my wife and me simultaneously Saturday, as we left the rest area below Donner Lake, where I had just finished a swimming race (or vice versa): Our vacation was officially over.

Too good to be true: Bend, Oregon, is the city Disney™®© would have designed, could it find a way to package the place for 21st century mass consumption. All it lacks are admissions gates, which the Mickey Mouse media oligarchy could probably manage without trouble since drivers so dutifully drop their speed as they enter the city of 80,000 and change.

This small city straddling the great high desert and the edge of the Cascade Range has reclaimed itself. Once a timber town, anchored by lumber mills, now it exudes and exhorts tourism —  especially for the young and vigorous. Developers rescued two massive sawmills, keeping three soaring smokestacks and the shells of buildings, and turning them all into high-end shops and restaurants, and adding an amphitheater named for tire king Les Schwab (Bend homie) all under the name Old Mill District. Suck eggs, Sacramento, trying and failing so far to do the same with its railyards.

Bend has 15 craft breweries, three more around the region, and more to come. Look out, Portland.

Families float down the lazy Deschutes River in inner tubes and brand new chaise lounge rafty apparatuses right past the Old Mill District and into an immaculate old storybook neighborhood of lumber barons' manors.

Clean and cool logo!
We had to retrieve enough forgotten camping items in Bend to evolve from thoroughly annoyed to partially pleased at the myriad carefully landscaped and sculptured roundabouts in the western, mostly frivolous side of Bend. I wonder at the planning involved in building so many of them (a local called them keyholes); I mean, you can't have a business at any of the corners, because drivers wouldn't be able to turn out in time to reach it. Either a lot of corner properties had to be condemned and ripped out to make way for the roundabouts, or the roundabouts came first and the useless part of the city was build around it.

The utilitarian part of Bend (you know, with grocery shops, gas stations, drug stores) is beset with many lethargic traffic lights, mostly to temper any enthusiasm drivers might retain for the never-say-stop roundabouts.

The place smelled sharply like sweat when I was a kid — a permeating blend of incinerator smoke and pine and sawdust and plywood glue. Now it smells like money. 

I came, I swam, I was conquered: The excuse for vacation was a swim festival west of Bend at tidy little Elk Lake in the Deschutes National Forest, the South Sister mountain towering above. A friendly coalition of U.S. Masters swimming groups (Central Oregon Masters Aquatics, or COMA) sponsors three days of races, and they make out-of-town swimmers welcome. We just had to be part of it, even if — especially if — we didn't know what we were getting into.

At each lakeside campground on the northbound trip, I managed a swim and quickly huffed and puffed each time, barely able to finish what is relatively easy for me back home. The altitude was robbing me of strength and air, or I was just mired in one of those struggly periods I get into.

No sooner had we finally settled into a campsite at Elk Lake than I joined the 3,000-meter race on a Friday evening. Altitude and anxiety and wind and chop and a misguided attempt to talk myself out of giving up had me give up before I reached the first buoy, out of breath. The race director told me to try again in the next races and take it slow, since I come from 121 feet in altitude, and Elk Lake is 4,893 feet.

Skipping the 500-meter race the next day, I finished the 1,500 meters and felt OK, then Sunday slogged through the 5,000-meter race (about three miles) and labored through the end of the 1,000- meter race to end the festival.

Stopping frequently in the 5,000, I looked back on the course to discover the course had disappeared. With a quick glance to my left, I saw why: The rescue boat was already pulling the marker buoys, a rather blunt message that I was the last one on the course.

I stumbled through the finish line, the beneficiary of the swim festival tradition — loudly cheering on the last swimmer.

Iron Eyes Cody, we need you! The candy bar wrappers and sunburned cans of Oly tossed on the side of road of my generation have given way to flattened empty packets of Gu™®© along Century Avenue, the 100-mile mountain highway loop leading out of Bend. This is a place for serious bikers (the swimming event we went to encouraged volunteers to bicycle the 32 miles and 1,000 foot climb from Bend rather than fatten their carbon footprint).

Lost a part and found an inspiration: An elderly man joined me on the Elk Lake beach one morning in my search for the tiny cap that holds the air in my goofy looking inflatable orange swimmer's safety device. He isn't just any elderly man, and he's far, far from elderly. He's David Radcliff, 78, a retired high school teacher and administrator from Southern California, and now a master's swimmer living near Portland. What he didn't say — what I found out from others — is that he swam the 1,500 meter freestyle race in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. After taking 38 years off from swimming, he resumed in 1995 and now owns a multitude of world records for his age group.

At the swim festival at Elk Lake, Dave Radcliff swam the 1,500-meter race in 25 minutes and 11 seconds, 36th among all swimmers. In 1956, finishing fourth in his heat and unable to advance to the finals, he swam it in 19:09.6. I swam the 1,500 at Elk Lake in 32 minutes and 49 seconds, 104th overall.

(I need to discard the delusion that I'll improve by attrition, more likely to place in my age group the older I get: The 1,500 winner, at 20 minutes and 35 seconds, is 60 years old.)

Friendly and encouraging, Dave often asked how I was faring at the festival and reminded me to take the races slow and easy to account for the altitude. I took his advice too well.

Must-not-see TV: Vacation meant mercifully missing some of the Olympics. I have turned the games off in frustration, refusing NBC's manipulation. I won't stay up late nights while NBC reconstitutes the games into some sort of jingoistic, athletic American Idol, holding the show stopper until past 11 p.m. The network pads the show with the usual sob stories and rehashes of Olympics long past; here's an idea — just show the Olympics, just event after event in short-attention span rotation? Instead I watch at random and create my own visual smorgasbord — a little water polo, a bit of table tennis, a racing canoe heat — and don't worry about what I may be missing. I'll read about it if I have to.

Must-not-see TV II: San Francisco became the Bizarro Giants in our absence, falling apart in an L.A. Dodgers sweep and allowing the Dodgers to crawl back to the top of the division. The New York Mets stomped the Giants for two games out of three. The one who has usually bumbled, starter Tim Lincecum, became the lone bright spot in that horrid streak, beating the Mets.

Beating up on the lowly Colorado Rockies for some three-game sweep salve once we got back home, the Giants visit the Cardinals this week. The Cards gave the Giants rude welcome in the first game, beating San Francisco 8-2.

A conversation I'll never have: (Overheard): "Mr. Race Director, I'm not sure you got my time in that race. I think I got third for my age group."

Them that has, gets: Tell me again why professional basketball players should be participating in the Olympics. Or professional tennis players. Or professional anything. Medals must feel like a lifetime achievement award for them, or paperweights for their piles of money and accolades.

And why is beach volleyball in the Olympics? OK, I've complained enough.

Red highways: I can't remember if I can't remember, but a part of me recognizes the unique red cinder highways around Bend, built from the lava rock abundant in this land of ancient volcanoes. The color of dried blood, the roads still exist on the trailhead spurs and side roads off Century Avenue in the Cascades, but on the main highway itself, the red highway merely peeks out at the edges under at least two layers of plain old gray gravelly blacktop. After crews obliterated the red roads with black glop, a highway department spokesman said the red highways held no historic value. Okay …

• People of the Klamath, hear me: Do you use Klamath Lake for anything other than drinking and irrigating? It was a dead sea when we drove around it: not a single boat, not a creature stirring. Convinced the maps had to be wrong, we blew out half a day driving around the entire lake in search of camping: A few half-hearted tiny private campgrounds from a bygone century, advertising the standard $5 boat launch fee. One public campground carved out of marshy reeds, ideal for dumping bodies or making meth, but not for camping. That's it? Seriously?

• It does a body good: Determined not to quit the 5,000-meter race, I nonethless had to stop a lot in order to keep this promise to myself. The course was a 2,000-meter diamond for the first loop, then two 1,500-meter triangles to finish. I had gone about 2,300 meters when I took a long rest and looked behind me. The leaders of the pack were about to lap me. Think of it: In the time it took me to swim 2,300 meters, this bunch of churning swimmers had swum 3,700 meters and were on their last loop. The three who would eventually finish one-two-three — nearly an hour ahead of me — were drafting one another, a tight body length behind the other, their strokes matching exactly. They were wearing wetsuits in 67-degree water, but I didn't give them a hard time about it; I was too busy marveling at what well-developed human bodies and strong minds could accomplish.

Head down, trying not to think too much, I plodded on.