Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gym membership, paid in full

Another year reserved …

… for swimming waters that never get better — nor never worse — than cool and green and shady …

… for rightly calling Lake Natoma my home pool — and Folsom Lake my backup …

… for the distant sly greeting of a river otter at first light, betraying its surveillance with a needle-thin wake on the mirror lake …

… for water so comfortable in August it's almost impossible to remember how cold it was, and will be, in January …

… for waves so high swim buddies disappear momentarily in the sideways rain, raising our common-sense alarms a bit too late …

… for scary plants moving just oddly enough to seem sentient, chalky and yellow green just below arm's reach, with what look like nubby teeth flashing …

… for water so cold in January hands become dead things, seen but not felt, water floods frozen mouths, and summer's relative warmth is so ever distant …

… for dashing sideways toward shore just as the whiter hull of a rowing shell pokes out of the white fog …

… for squabbling turkeys in spring, somehow, somehow evading car bumpers …

… for at least one swim under the twinkling disorientation of a full moon …

… for running in place and spilling hot tea and shivering with friends, and bragging with them about what we've just done …

… for choosing from a wide selection of parking spaces, and a mile and more of uncrowded swim lanes …

… for swimming homeward and tired into neon summer sunsets …

… for dreading a cold swim, but emerging like a swamp thing afterward, full of life and glad to have gone …

… for causing beachgoers and fisherpeople to worry and wonder about us …

… for gliding and gasping past the ghost camps of freed and escaped slaves, and Chinese wayfarers, and adventurers of all types stumbling along the riprap, ripping up these banks in search of gold 160 years ago …

… for feeling alive in the deathly cold …

… for the distant perfume of sycamores and flowers in spring, warm licorice whip of anise in fall, and more often than not on our Saturday upper lake swims, bacon frying somewhere close …

… for maybe finally finding out why Edgar Rice Burroughs' name is attached to the tiny island we swim around three times a week …

… for getting so far out from the start that getting back feels not entirely certain …

… for the first moment in spring when the water suddenly clears enough to reveal old river bottom 12 feet below and emerald …

… for the shock of realizing how shallow the rest of the lake really is …

… for the paddlers in giant Hawaiian outriggers who stop in mid-chant to tell us with smiles how crazy we are …

… for splashing water at the mean-spirited minority of huki surfski paddlers who deliberately knife right into our crowd of swimmers on late summer afternoons …

… for often being in the water long before the huki paddlers even get their coffee …

… for coffee and contemplation with swim buddies at the Starbucks®© across the street …

… for It's a Grind and Folsom Grind and Peet's and Coffee Republic and Karen's Bakery and McDonalds — all the places that had good hot coffee waiting for freezing swimmers …

… for struggling up the lazy river more than five miles on Independence Day, and flopping on the granite outcropping three-plus hours later like a dying salmon …

… for trying to seem less like a dying salmon next time 'round …

… for watching another batch of Canada geese hatch and grow and become identical to the growing ranks of the black-and-white-and-gray-brown superflock (identical except maybe to other Canada  geese) …

… for finding new adventure in every swim …

… for being able to.

Another year!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It is to laugh*

Before I insult you, let me explain:

On a couple of occasions, interested parties have asked me to remove posts from this blog.

Nothing gains from saying who or even why, except that it involves public image control.
(jaw clenches … )
Both cases regarded my use of this blog to promote my illustration. Neither post held my clients in anything but a positive light; I had no reason, for one; for two, even if I did, I may be stupid, but I'm not that stupid.

True, I didn't ask spoken permission to promote the work in my blog; but it wasn't necessary: Under terms of service spelled out in my business paperwork, I retain ownership of my work unless I say otherwise.

(It's a facet of freelance illustration that remains poorly understood: Clients pay for the services of my illustration, not the product itself. Typically, clients reserve first and one-time use of the art commissioned, and all other rights revert to the illustrator.

(It's further proof that few of my clients read the paperwork; otherwise they'd pay according to the terms I outline. Only one pays within the terms.)

(brow furrows … )

Permission wasn't even the issue in either case. Posting my work, and crediting and portraying the result in the best light, doesn't cross ethical or legal lines as far as I can tell.

So maybe I am that stupid.

I have complied in both cases, because I understand viscerally (the client is concerned, and I don't want to spoil our relationship) if not intellectually (I spoke cheerfully of my client and the work I got to do, and maybe a few more people got to see it.)

In one case, the party didn't want its public knowing that this was the sort of work it spent money on. Which makes no sense to me, since the finished art went out to a portion of that public.
(sweat beads on forehead … )
In the other, a caricature came into question. Again, a caricature that had been used in presentation among the subject's public. Approved by said subject. A classic big-head-little-body apolitical caricature, with complimentary facial features. A feel-good caricature, published in this blog about the size of your thumb.

But it existed outside of the subject's control, I guess.

I write this blog for four … no, five … reasons:

(1) To promote my work (shawn, DRAWN in its literal meaning, the stuff I've done). It's easier than rejiggering my website to accommodate new work. My website shows the breadth of my work in a timeless manner, so changing it out is not necessary. I post a link to each blog post on facebook, and visitors to my website can link to my blog;

(Much of my work appears anonymously, the implicit perception being that my clients make these wonderful widgets and draw these pictures to boot! I just like potential clients to know what I do, just as I like to know who created this illustration or that logo.)

(2) To establish an archive, however funky and frustrating, of a career's work that otherwise would lay unseen in a flat file;

(3) To comment (shawn, DRAWN in its figurative sense, drawn from life) about myself and my foibles and issues that affect me … open water swimming and the San Francisco Giants, ad nauseam;

(4) To practice writing, a craft I let atrophy over the years;

(5) To practice organization; I assign myself essays and illustrations, testing myself, setting tight deadlines, becoming my own worst client. Posting the blog helps me organize the rest of my week, giving new urgency to the other tasks, giving me new energy to attack them.

Despite modest triumph at the last four, I fail with the first because —
here's the insult —
almost no one reads my blog.

Don't misunderstand: I cherish you few who read, and I infer with confidence that you read regularly. But I remain absolutely gobsmacked you do, or that anyone does. It's really a journal in which I've interchanged privacy for selfishness: Though I don't expect anybody else to read, a part of me really does; otherwise, of course, I'd type into a Word®©™ document, for someone to find on my hard drive someday.

And I always like to share my illustrations. What's the word for that? Narcissism? No. Egotism? Maybe. But not quite.

But no one has contacted me to to say, "I saw the illustrations on your blog and I have some work for you." Or, "I saw your website … do you have more samples?" after which I'd recommend the blog, except they'd have to read an awful lot of words to get to the pictures.

You'd laugh at what small company you keep (maybe I should spin that into a thing of honor).
All of which is why requests to remove blog posts make me laugh. A wheezy, sardonic laugh.

As a babe in Technoland, I have come to realize some people and businesses spend significant time searching for themselves on the Internet, trolling the wide web for their image, there to polish or unsully or preserve.

They use the labels I have made, word tags like virtual breadcrumbs, referring wanderers to this and that post. Though I use labels, I didn't realize their effect until people responded. People have asked me about editorial cartoons I drew long ago, and one asked me to comment on commentary she had made. I met two people (one a former schoolmate whom I sorry to say I didn't know back then) who happened to attend their first Major League Baseball game on the same day, though different cities, as I did, which I wrote about.

(This will be a label-free post.)

Labels also attracted the complainants, each a third party, who asked the clients to ask me to remove the posts.
(breath rattles … )
To my shock, I found 63 hits on the post containing the caricature. It's impossible for me to tell whether those hits happened lately, or accumulated over time. That's a big number. When I wrote about the unexpected death of a popular and accomplished high school friend, his star shine attracted many, many readers, relatively speaking. So too when I wrote about my great uncles who served in World War II, many of whom survived the attack on Pearl Harbor; my extended family found my blog, and I rediscovered some of my extended family.

More people than usual, relatively speaking, read when I declare logos the best or worst. That's the de facto purpose of blogs, I suppose, to critique uniquely the world at large. When a large number of hits, relatively speaking, accumulated in a short time over a post I wrote about the worst business slogan I had ever read, I was expecting suits at my door, or some kind of cease-and-desist phone call because I had hurt the company's feelings.

Corporations are people too, you know.

(fists ball up … )

Usually, though, the number of regular readers could fit in my kitchen. Which is why I laugh: The presence or absence of this caricature does not affect the subject's stature or wealth, both considerable, one vibrating nanojot.

It would be easier to cover the caricature with your thumb as you read, but you won't be able to now. Of course, the complainant sent me a copy of the post in an email, so it still exists forevermore somewhere.

E-mail me if you want details.

One of my friends, one of those regular readers, is surely thinking at this precise moment, "Your correct response to this, Shawn, should have been, 'This is my work. I have spoken in glowing terms about working with you. Fuck off!'" He's right.

That's my policy now; this is my manifesto.

Should you want me to remove a post, I'll refer you to this post. Maybe I'll talk a bit more about how, though I disparage my own fumbling attempts at process, I don't ever bite the feeding hand.

Then I'll delineate, in the kindest way possible, what you may do with your request.

(wheeze … )


Friday, January 25, 2013

Falling up somehow*

On Saturday, a 15-year-old boy near Albuquerque, New Mexico, shot his mom dead with a .22-caliber rifle as she slept. He told police his mom had annoyed him, and that he thought of suicide and homicide.

Little brother, sleeping next to mom, didn't believe the boy had shot her, so the boy showed little brother her bloodied face — then shot and killed little brother. Then he shot and killed two young sisters. This is what he told police, the Associated Press reports.

Next he grabbed a semiautomatic assault rifle from his parents' closet, and waited in a downstairs bathroom for his dad, a church pastor and volunteer chaplain at a county jail, to come home from helping at a rescue mission. The boy fired multiple rounds, killing his father as he walked past the bathroom door.

The boy put two guns into a family car and thought of shooting shoppers at a Wal•Mart, but went to his girlfriend's house instead. He also told police he thought of killing his girlfriend's family. Instead he told congregants at his church that he had killed his family.
Oh, well.

When you're upholding our absolute right under the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms, sometimes these things happen. It's too bad, but what are you gonna do? Call it … collateral damage.
Also on Saturday, five people were accidentally shot at gun shows in three states. The Associated Press reported three people were injured in Raleigh, North Carolina, when the owner of a shotgun accidentally fired it as he unzipped the gun from its case at a security checkpoint. A man in Indianapolis, Indiana, shot himself in the hand as he was leaving a show. A gun dealer in Medina, Ohio, accidentally pulled the trigger on a new purchase and injured his friend.
Saturday was Gun Appreciation Day.
What?! They were appreciating their guns!
On Wednesday, two high school students in Albany, California, were shot by assailants apparently interested in taking their basketball shoes.
That's old school, and old news. Happens all the time.

So it goes.

I'm waiting for the gun lobby to accuse gun-control advocates of orchestrating these heinous shootings and exercises in social Darwinism as a misguided effort to demonstrate that guns galore create environments for heinous shootings like these.

In these days of galling lies and stunts and hoaxes from the people we're expected to believe and admire, I wouldn't be surprised …
(Callow and cruel digression: If you owned multiple guns, including assault weapons, and you heard 27 people, most of them small children, had been shot in Newtown, Connecticut, wouldn't you say to yourself, "Hey! I have just such weapons! And I have children! Maybe I should be careful about where I put my Constitutionally guaranteed weapons, and about who can get them?" 

Wouldn't you take steps to make it so? Wouldn't you see the possibility of disquieting parallels?

Wouldn't you?)
People are killed by knives and hammers too, says the gun lobby. Should we ban them too?

I'm going to take a wild guess here, but I think killing with a knife is hard work. A lot of strength is involved, you have to swing or jab many times, you have the inconvenient problem of the victim not wanting to die, fighting back. Same goes for hammers.

Guns are immediate and distant, an instant expenditure of rage. Household with a troubled family member = Anguish and anger and confusion and heartache and impotence and a threat to family resolve. Now dangle a gun.

Ban automobiles! They kill too!

But the primary purpose of automobiles is not to kill people — and those who kill with cars are most often impaired, not intending to kill. Laws are imperfect to limit those deaths, but laws and regulations exist; they are upheld, and they work.

We own guns, the National Rifle Association and advocates say, to prevent tyranny, a noble notion imbedded in the Constitution. Nothing, therefore, can change gun policy. No ground may be given up in debate. No consideration for limiting access to guns. Absolutely, tyrannically, none.

So who decides tyranny? Who determines it's time to raise arms? Who determines the target? Who organizes this well-regulated militia, whatever that is?

It seems many opponents have made a straw tyrant of Barack Obama since he became president, with a talking-point vitriol and Orwellian newspeak I had never heard before in my life.

What of teapot tyrants? Do we start shooting when a town council denies a zoning permit? When animal control tells me to leash my dog? When are assault weapons justified here?

The brother of the New Mexico pastor shot and killed by his son said we shouldn't make the killings a political issue. So, it's just the tragic fate of a troubled family, then.

Just add guns.

*"Marker in the Sand," Pearl Jam, a jabbing satire of Bush administration war policy, which I'm sure not enough people heard.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Injustice for all

"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education."
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thanks to teachers who carry on. Thanks to families and guardians struggling to teach their children well. Thanks to children who don't give up … and those who won't let them give up.

Class sizes for Kindergarten through third grade now regularly exceed 30 students in California. Gov. Jerry Brown and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson blame the wrecked (and not yet repaired) economy for obliterating the state mandate of 20-student limits in the lower grades.

Teaching children to read — giving them keys to unlock the world — is difficult enough already. Critical thinking lies in critical condition.
"We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The price we pay

Twenty four years ago today, Patrick Purdy fired a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle into the playground at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., killing five children and wounding 29 others and a teacher — then killed himself.

Law enforcement authorities said Purdy was upset that Asian immigrants were taking whites' jobs. All of the children killed and some of the wounded were Cambodian or Vietnamese immigrants.

His wasn't the first school shooting, of course. Ten years before, a teenager named Brenda Ann Spencer shot into a schoolyard from her house in San Diego, picking off students and teachers like a sniper. Asked why, she said, "I don't like Mondays." Her reason became infamous as the impetus for The Boomtown Rats' hit.

Tori Amos' plaintive version of that song keened from my computer for days following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, when Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adult staff members after killing his mother.

We can see no reasons, because there are no reasons.

Brenda Ann Spencer was not the first school shooter, either. Adam Lanza wasn't the last; police believe a 16-year-old Taft High School student last week shot two other students in the south San Joaquin Valley town. On Tuesday a student shot an administrator and then himself at a St. Louis business school; police say a man in southeastern Kentucky Tuesday killed his girlfriend and her relatives at a community college, with a gun he bought that day.

That's just school shootings. A burglary suspect on Tuesday shot a Galt police officer a half-hour south of us, then shot himself to death.

Just some of the killings by firearms in the United States, which the FBI tabbed at 8,583 in 2011. An average of 23 killings by firearms each day. A classroom's worth.

In my short life as an editorial cartoonist, the Stockton shootings and their aftermath took up a good share of my attention — just as the Sandy Hook killings focus us today.

So … where are we going?

President Obama yesterday unveiled a list of $500 million in proposals to reduce gun violence, such as restoring bans on assault weapons, invigorating background checks, reducing bullets in clips, and buttressing mental health services.

Consider it the latest large volley in a firefight of statistics and particulars and semantics and invective and lunacy that will mushroom.

After the Sandy Hook killings, the National Rifle Association called for armed personnel in all schools. Teachers in parts of Utah and Texas and Ohio have begun firearms training. Posses in a part of Arizona are ready to take gun positions at public schools.

I'm imagining some of the ways that would play out:
  • the day a teacher forgets to lock the gun away and remove a bullet from the chamber, and a student finds a new toy for recess …
  • the morning a teacher fumbles to unlock the protected firearm, then the protected ammunition, as a shooter moves closer down the hall unimpeded …
  • a school district announces it can't possibly pay for music education and teacher target practice, so tubas get tossed …
  • shooters outgun armed school personnel (which happened at Columbine High School) …
  • school and law enforcement officers announce at a future news conference that thanks to quick action by armed teachers, only three people died instead of nine … though, again, three people died …
Meanwhile, Americans flock to the gun shops and shows, buying the assault weapons and ammo, driving up their prices. Some of the buying derives from fear that the government will take away the weapons, and it's easier to lose what you don't have in the first place. And harder to defend.

Gun owners — their own well-regulated militias — dig in against any and all enemies, their triggers becoming ever more sensitive.

Maybe it's true, as the NRA says, that the saturation of violent video games and movies is what makes people shoot other people. Millions play and watch every day, and far more violent fare than the outdated films NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre cited.

Even if all shooters get their motivation from these media, though, the fact remains: They get the guns easily. It doesn't matter what kind, where from, how many bullets; they get the guns easily.

Guns become the logical, terminal extension of anger or confusion or delusion. Find a way to keep the guns away, maybe people won't get hurt or die.

In the months and years to come, push and shove and shout and condemn will leave us all right back where we are. Guns will still be easy to get.

I keep returning to a line in The West Wing, in which a congressman who's gay explains why he remains in the Republican Party — whose policies disparage him.
"I never understood why you gun control people don't all join the NRA," the congressman says. "They've got two million members. You bring three million to the next meeting, call a vote. All those in favor of tossing guns ... bam! Move on." 
Josh Lyman, the president's deputy chief of staff, derides the congressman's change-from-within strategy as unworkable.

I guess Josh is right.

I think we'll just have to live with the idea that the sanctity of the Second Amendment comes at a cost — 23 people killed every day by guns in the United States. Teachers and their little students occasionally, albeit tragically, shot and killed.

It's the price we pay.

The lesson today is how to die.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Very bad words

Fiscal cliff, my ass!

That wasn't the worst phrase of 2012, not by a flying leap.

Sure, we lemmings declared it the worst — while we were also filling out our 10-best lists, noting notable deaths, celebrating Christmas and fulfilling all the other rituals for kissing off the dying year.

We had a terrible choice of words to choose from.

"Fiscal cliff" is truly bad — politically charged, inaccurate, uttered ad nauseam  — but not the worst.

Nor is "artisanal," a made-up marketing word appearing suddenly on cheeses and breads and lunchmeats this year. It's meant to evoke the sentiment, "Buy the damn thing, already!"

We doubled up on "double down" each time Mitt Romney put his foot in his mouth and refused to remove it.

Most of the other bad words of 2012 escaped my notice because I don't do social media — "meh," "cray" (for crazy), "YOLO" (short for "you only live once"), "hashtag," "jeah" (Ryan Lochte's contribution to language, apparently).

But these are wimpy one-offs, merely annoying mosquitoes compared to the chronic torment of the worst phrase of 2012 or any other year:

Going forward.

If this phrase had its own slogan, it would be, "The really dumb phrase that people use because they think it makes them sound really smart."®™

Which it doesn't.

Not long ago it meant something, as in:
The bus is going forward. (The bus is rolling in a forward direction!)
She is going forward with the plan. (She is carrying out the plan!)
See? Good, plain sense.

No more.

Now people use the stupidest phrase ever this way.
"How will the Giants fare going forward?"
"What is the Republican strategy going forward?"
"Going forward, how will she plea?"
Completely. Meaningless.

Here are the same sentences without: "How will the Giants fare?" "What is the Republican strategy?" "How will she plea?"

Did they change with going forward's removal? They did not! Why?

(1) Someone did us the favor of inventing verb tenses, which tell us when events took place in the past, are happening now, or will happen. Thank you, prescient inventors, for saving us the trouble of having to say going forward when we talk of future events!

(2) Time (as we know and use it) moves in one direction: Forward. We already move forward! We don't have to say so all the time! People know this!

(I don't discount that in my lifetime some kid will roll out of MIT or Yale or Heald College with a $1.99 app that enables easy time travel; until that happens, we won't need going forward to distinguish when and where we're going. We're going forward.)

Stupid and redundant and dumb.

Still, TV and radio pundits say it many times daily, maybe moreso in sports broadcasting. Listen closely next time. Even the otherwise erudite National Public Radio personalities and guest experts say it every day. I bet you heard it six times at work yesterday.

It probably started when someone supposedly smart said it, and admirers copied it because that's how smart people talk — like dumb people. Now it's become the office-speak version of "y'know," and, like, "like."

You can stop it.

Call people out when they use it; it's OK to tell them it's the stupidest phrase ever; they need to know. Recommend they repeat themselves but substitute going backward or going sideways, just to humiliate them. Kick the habit if you're the one annoying the hell out of your office mates; use "at the end of the day" as your linguistic pacifier instead; it's annoying too, but at least it means something ("in the end" or "at the end of the process").

Invent time travel and give going forward meaning.

You owe it to children and the English language. And to physics.

Going forward, I hope for the best. Wait, I'm already going forward.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Another fine example of California's gold

It was the best of television, it was the worst of television.

Either way, California's Gold was must-see TV. Creator Huell Howser died this week at 67, and I'll miss him and his show. Judging from the Internet uproar, so will many, many others.


Huell took public television viewers along on his dream job, to feature every corner and cranny and nook of California. And he just about did.

"We have two agendas," he once told the Los Angeles Times. "One is to specifically show someone China Camp State Park or to talk to the guys who paint the Golden Gate Bridge. But the broader purpose is to open up the door for people to have their own adventures. Let's explore our neighborhood; let's look in our own backyard."

I counted on Huell to show me my state, because at this rate I won't see much of it otherwise.

He showed me China Camp, all right, among dozens of state parks and California's national parks. He took me land sailing in Mad Max contraptions across El Mirage Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert … a mile deep into the earth near Nevada City to hear the caroling descendants of Cornish coal miners … a mile above the earth soaring near Mach 1 with the Navy's Blue Angels … and, of course, high atop a tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, among the sisyphean painters in the razor fog and wind.

That's aMAZing!

Huell went to places we could not — with the descendants of William Randolph Hearst on their ranchland and homes below Hearst Castle, say, and out on the protected Farallones far west of the Golden Gate. He showed us with new eyes our own backyards: Our hometowns and their doughnut shops and fruit stands … our county fairs … what William Least Heat-Moon would call the "blue highways" of our state.

He showed where the Zamboni ice grooming machine is made, where In-N-Out Burger plans its fast food empire, where Hot Dog on a Stick started on a Santa Monica beach, where an Oakland family perfected the squeegee that professional window washers rely on.

He roamed where John Muir and Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson had roamed, and paid his respects where thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned east of the Sierra during World War II — always with experts to answer his questions, which were our questions, because Huell Howser was going to these places for us. 

He showed what even Californians have a hard time believing: It's an extremely diverse state, in its many meanings.
All the while, Huell Howser infected his stories with unconstrained, sometimes infuriating, enthusiasm. He was never not delighted at everything he covered, at almost every moment.
A hulking man, he carried a comically small microphone and towered over many of his interview subjects. He frequently shouted, in a skirling Tennessee drawl, the phrases that have endeared and inured him to viewers. "That's aMAZing! Isn't that aMAZing? Oh my GOSH! Get a SHOT of that, Louie (Luis Fuerte, one of his longtime camera operators)! AhhMAZing! How about THAT!"


He'd look into the camera and repeat mundane facts just given him, elevating them as if epiphanies. He'd ask a question and then not wait for the answer, seeing some shiny distant object and immediately running over to look at it, his subjects running along behind. He'd talk right over an expert's answer, quashing juicy information.

People (me too) made fun of him. Comedians made a living off him ("Look at that! You say that's water?! Look everybody, it's WATER! And boy, is it WET! AhhMAZing!") A drinking game was built around his Howser-isms.

But he knew his corn-pone persona sold. He made a guest appearance on The Simpsons, after all. Homer even paid Huell tribute. And he sold California. He was the state parks' best ambassador, standing in for us. I was really surprised news of his death didn't go national.

Corny as he was, he sold me. I'll watch his show and its many spinoffs ("California's Green," "California's Water," etc.) whenever they're on.

Huell went to my hometown more than once, to explore Mission La Purisima and Vandenberg Air Force Base, and endorse Lompoc's effort to draw tourists with giant murals.

He even helped me get the part-time gig I enjoy, leading tours of Sacramento's Underground. Thanks to a computer glitch, many more people than the venue could hold showed up at a speech he was giving several years ago in Old Sacramento. Parks officials entertained the overflow with an impromptu tour of the underground, which spawned the formal tours today. Huell then produced a show about the underground tours, which I still haven't seen; somehow I've missed many of them.

You and I have a second chance, though: Huell donated his archive of California's Gold episodes, available for viewing, to Chapman University.

One obituary this week called Huell Howser the Charles Kuralt of California's highways, which maligns both men. Kuralt's stories were tightly edited monuments to his bright writing and concise storytelling, while Huell Howser rambled, stories searching for an ending; sometimes he'd just have his interview subjects stand in front of a sign or a landmark and wave, like something out of a soundless home movie. His shows could have used more editing. His was Arthur Godfrey TV in the 21st Century.

Kuralt also sometimes faintly mocked his subjects, softly and cleverly suggesting to viewers, "Isn't this silly?! Aren't we better?"

Huell never ridiculed the people he met. Maybe he thought their life's missions were loopy, but he delighted in meeting everyone.

Someone should take up his mantle. Exhaustive as Huell's search was, more stories await.

Because of Huell, I hope someday to kayak through the sea caves of Santa Cruz Island. Because of Huell, I'm going to buy one of those squeegees and save myself some work washing the windows.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Worst slogan ever

Hang onto your wallet. The following sexy words will make you lose it and your mind …

You ready? OK, I warned you:
"By combining the best practices of thousands of member companies with our advanced research methodologies and human capital analytics, we equip senior leaders and their teams with insight and actionable solutions to transform operations."
You're twitterpated, right? Your pulse races! You want whatever this is, right now, or you'll die! It had you at "human capital analytics," right?


Or maybe you consider it one of the worst business slogans ever devised? Something for which a Dilbert would need to be invented, if Scott Adams hadn't already, so he could prick this bag of wind? Yeah, that's what I think.

I heard this over a National Public Radio station a week or so ago. I'm sure it had been repeated for weeks before I finally paid attention. You NPR listeners know how it is; you're hoping weeks of subconscious listening, of auditory osmosis, will turn you into an expert on the Syrian crisis for the next dinner party, when the names and nuances spill out of your mouth to everyone's surprise, including yours.

The sponsors' spiels spill over you until all you hear is the cadence — Angie's List™… Novo Nordisk© … Sit4Less and the exclusive Herman Miller Aeron® chair in True Black™©®. They're not even things or services, not even words, just sounds, onomatopoeia. When sponsors stop sponsoring, that's when you notice them. Or by the oddest bit of what is supposed to be the English language.

One day I heard the announcer say "actionable solutions." What in hell is an actionable solution? Is that anything like a plain old unadorned solution? Is actionable anything like workable, a perfectly workable word?

I had to look up the sponsor by googling®™© the words that snagged my ear ("actionable solutions to transform operations"); it turns out, sadly, the phrase is not unique. Among the small pile of possible sponsors, I found the one responsible: Corporate Executive Board, CEB for short. It's "the leading member-based advisory company."

Whatever that is.

I looked around and have concluded maybe they might kind of be consultants, sort of. Hard to tell. Consultant, as in someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, as someone, somewhere, once said.

Except I'm not so sure; the rest of CEB's slogan is, "This distinctive approach, pioneered by CEB, enables executives to harness peer perspectives and tap intro breakthrough innovation and improvement without costly consulting or reinvention." So CEB doesn't consult? What … does … it … do …?

I'm sure CEB doesn't care if I know what it does. High in the corporate stratosphere, where gobbledy and gook spill freely from corporate mouths, people understand. And that's fine.

But why burden NPR listeners with it? Why not substitute a slogan in English for us listeners, who are used to NPR reporters, and Ira Glass, speaking plain English?

Once I was asked to help a company name itself. Before the Internet bust, this company was going to take businesses where they needed to be on the Web. It was back when such companies called themselves "information architects." Yeah, that long ago.

The new company's principals, all very bright, type A+ personalities, rich in experience even in so young a tech über industry, still couldn't tell me what their company did. Not in 10 words, not in more than 100 polysyllabic words, rat-a-tat like Martin Scorsese. They spoke English, I think, but it all came out … well, a lot like the CEB slogan. I didn't end up helping name the company, because it was the company that could not be named.

Another time, I took part in forging a mission statement for the organization where I worked. "Forged" is the correct term, all of us swinging hammers, trying to connect noble words with the chains of articles and punctuation into an inspiring whole.

We brainstormed at special meetings with inviolate rules. We rearranged words and phrase snippets at other meetings with even stricter rules. We contemplated and rearranged. We said the results aloud over and over, in unison, our mantra, until the result sounded like they could be English.

The result was exactly what you would expect if 14 people convened to write a sonnet. Or made magnetic poetry on your refrigerator, with lots of adverbial suffixes.

I have to wonder: What would Dilbert do?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Year of maniacal thinking

Where to now?

In 2012 I was to have swum from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge — or vice versa, tide depending — and completed a 10k open-water race.

I didn't.

I did:
  • swim the length of my home water, Lake Natoma, finishing the 4.8 miles 30 minutes faster than my first attempt, the Independence Day before;
  • cross Donner Lake for the second time, though many minutes slower than the year before;
  • swim the Folsom Lake Open Water 2.4 mile for the second time, in about the same amount of time;
  • use the full moon for light in a midsummer swim with friends at Folsom Lake;
  • compete in several swims, including a three-mile race, at an alpine Oregon lake during a wonderful festival devoted to the sport;
  • swim at least four times a week in Lake Natoma, through change of season and quality of light, through the slow rise and gradually painful fall in temperature, in fluctuating current, in mirror flatness, in heavy wind-churned chop, in summer clarity and winter murk, in heavy downpour and fog-white loneliness and the congestion of swimmers and darting devil-may-care paddle craft. I swam it with friends on the last day of 2012, and the first of 2013.
I hold the last most dear.

Take away all the rest, in fact, and I'd manage. Deny me my regular swims in Lake Natoma, though, and I'd mourn.

Every swim there is just the same, yet so different. From the south end of the lake, our swims hug the south shore, around a tiny island named (supposedly and as yet inexplicably) for Edgar Rice Burroughs, a distance that creeps up in my mind to 1.5 miles (it's probably just 1.3). From the north end on Saturdays, we swim across the narrow lake and then "upstream" around the trestles of a bridge and back in a big rectangle, about 1.7 miles.

With each swim I struggle and triumph, at different stages, to different degrees, for different reasons and periods — temperature, technique, hazards, work left to do at the office, going through my head constantly. Each high and low follows a cycle, its onset and duration a surprise. I learn little from each, except to know that they will return, sometime, in some way.

Long weeks will pass, for example, in which endurance suddenly escapes me. I'll go along fine for a half mile, a mile, and then one day just 100 yards will be hard. I end up counting strokes then, resolving to go 50, then 70, then 100, and on and on, for days, until I can resume my old stamina.

Sometimes the cycles are external. The stalwarts with whom I have swum the last year, for example, like to get in and swim as soon as we reach the water's edge; fast swimmers, they're soon way ahead. The swimmer I teamed with before (and if he's reading now, he needs to get his wetsuited fanny back out to the lake!) likes to get used to the water before starting out, kind of wade for a bit, let the cold take hold, which is more my style.

Lately a disturbing cycle has rooted, of slight dread. Not of the swim itself — once I'm in, then the struggles and triumphs, the sting of cold water on my forearms, the accidental swallow of green water, are so familiar. It's the going to and getting in that I resist lately. I overthink it and hyperventilate; I dawdle with the preparations (heat the water for the Thermos®© and for the hot drink on the drive over, pack dry clothes in one bag for the car trunk, and swim gear in another bag in the car seat so burglars won't be tempted to break in), so rather than getting in early before the fast swimmers arrive, I barely give myself time to start with them.

I know that sometime — who knows when? — this too shall pass and I'll be eager to jump in again. Maybe in three weeks or so, when the water will be its coldest.

Yet another cycle has waned (they often overlap): Call it acceptance, or resignation, or satisfaction of my Lake Natoma swim. It's been more than enough for me. And yet

I'm curious again.

Last year began with big plans. Swim big, go farther, faster. I even attended a Bay Area workshop about swimming 10k races. Then I swam 10,000 yards in a pool just to see if I could finish within the time limit. I couldn't. I tried again; long before I could finish, an aquacize class had set up and moved my lane lines to one side of the pool while I was still swimming. The 10k race came and went without me, as did most of the other races I tried the year before.

I stuck to "destination" swims, mostly, so Donner's end-to-end course and mountainous beauty fit. So did the Oregon festival, even though the course was set by buoys, which somehow violate my notion of an open-water swim.

Something about the Oregon swims, maybe the high altitude, wore me down, making me tired for the Donner swim, and by that time all the fire I had stoked for big swims had died out.

I settled into the unsettled comfort of Lake Natoma, where I've been since. Out of the water, I read facebook accounts from swimmers around the world, their big plans for the new year. Ten miles here, 20 there, an English Channel crossing, a Catalina crossing, colder and colder water, much colder than ours. Amazing wild seascapes. More and bigger.

Now I'm thinking outside the pond. A 10k race doesn't appeal, but those iconic bridges still beckon. As does Alcatraz; I'd like to swim it again. To get a leaner, to get stronger. To think less and use what swim buddy Doug calls my "reptile brain." To swim outside my comfort zone.

Where to now?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What a long strange trope it's been

By law, every editorial cartoonist must — at least once — draw the cliché of Father Time, passing his burden onto the New Year, a (sometimes) tophatted baby … each sashed, the old guy carrying a sickle, an hourglass passed between them. Maybe the sickle too, I dunno.
It's just enough to draw the cliché, not to know too much about it.

Smart/lucky cartoonists use this trope only once, then find something original to say instead. I used the cliché three times, in succession. In fairness, I tried once to make it fresh (above), twisting George Bush's "Thousand Points of Light" (which, kinda like Ronald Reagan's "Just say no," or President Obama's "Race to the top," really means, "Don't look behind the curtain — we got nothin'!")

The thousand points of uncertain light were certainly leading us into the darkness of war in Iraq.
Maybe I was a glass-half-empty guy, but I saw 1987 as a particularly bloody year, with the expectation of more to come.

Tragedy bookended Stockton's 1989, with a schoolyard shooting, five children dead, 28 others and a teacher injured in January, and a big rig hitting an Amtrak train days before Christmas, killing three people.

Notice a trend? Similarities, perhaps, to any recent years?

The word that comes to mind is intractable.

Happy (?) new year.