Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Jack Ohman go boom!*

Jack Ohman is good. Like the world needs my opinion.

Even after the Internet made viewing the world's editorial cartoons a mere matter of mouse clicks, I liked to pick up the Portland Oregonian anytime I was in the vicinity, mostly to see Ohman's latest cartoon.

(Cartoons are best read in your lap or at the breakfast table, your nose to the ink, examining the work.)

He has a distinct painterly style and a fierce voice. He knows precisely the power of the editorial cartoon; he knows not to waste his space and your time with the visual equivalent of a Jimmy Fallon topical toss-off.

Ohman joined my neighborhood newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, this year, after his best friend, cartoonist Rex Babin passed away. Ohman said he made the leap to help raise Babin's young son.

Babin had a spare, reductive style, as if he was carving away his cartoons from blocks of wood or linoleum. His voice as well was understated and circumspect, with occasional pointed jabs.

Ohman has brought a wealth of explosive devices to the job.

Last week he lit up the sky with the cartoon above.

In the wake of the explosion of the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, so horrible and vast and somehow swallowed up in the sensational Boston Marathon bombings, Ohman blamed the explosion on Texas' lax industrial regulations, touted as a benefit to California businesses looking for cheaper operating locales.

Oh, man!

The 'toon went viral, major newspapers reporting that Texas Gov. Rick Perry got mad. Perry told The Bee:
“It was with extreme disgust and disappointment I viewed your recent cartoon. While I will always welcome healthy policy debate, I won’t stand for someone mocking the tragic deaths of my fellow Texans and our fellow Americans.
“Additionally, publishing this on the very day our state and nation paused to honor and mourn those who died only compounds the pain and suffering of the many Texans who lost family and friends in this disaster. The Bee owes the community of West, Texas, an immediate apology for your detestable attempt at satire.”
Other letter writers said they failed to see the humor in Ohman's insensitivity.

Damn right it's insensitive — but not for its own sake. Ohman's job is not comic relief; it's sardonic dyspepsia. Ohman upholds editorial cartoons on the same serious level as editorials and columns, and uses the directness with which the written word can't compete.

The Bee stands by Ohman, who defended his work in a newspaper blog:
… what normal person doesn't mourn those poor people fighting the fire and living by the plant? I certainly do. What makes me angry, and, yes, I am driven by anger, is that it could have been prevented. I guess I could have done a toned-down version of the cartoon; I am not sure what that would have been, but I think many readers' objections just stemmed from the fact that I used the explosion as a metaphor, period. The wound is fresh, the hurt still stings.
Texas hadn't inspected that plant since 2006, Ohman pointed out.

To be fair, having to explain oneself in a blog defeats the purpose of a cartoon, but it's helpful in its expansion. Good cartoonists such as Ohman count on informed readers to know the issues, and then stomp around in the playgrounds of their minds, splashing ink.

A toned-down cartoon wouldn't have been worth publishing, much less drawing.

Ohman also gets a Sunday comic-sized space to satirize California politics, particularly the musings and meanderings of Gov. Jerry Brown and his corgi, Sutter, who comments on the lunacy a la Pat Oliphant's Punk. Ohman has an interloper's view of California, without any cows to hold sacred.

Here's a recent one, with entertaining riffs on art history:

His stuff is well worth visiting.

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/ohman/#storylink=cpy

*to borrow from the colorful patois of kids (or at least TV commercials) these days …

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Beer bash

May (or may not) be for a primer on how not to make beer (or beer bottles). Or not.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Cesar Chavez: A remembrance

Cesar Chavez fasted this year for 36 days. Vice President Dolores Huerta was beaten by
San Francisco police during a protest of President George H. W. Bush.
(United Farm Workers union founder and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez died 20 years ago today. This is an essay I wrote after his death for the California Farm Bureau's newspaper where I worked; I'm still a bit surprised the Farm Bureau published it.

(All it takes is a sore back after just 10 minutes of edging the front lawn to begin to imagine the sunup-to-sundown toil and courage and pain of the farmworkers he fought for):

Cesar Chavez was a fiction when I was growing up. He was as distant and mythical as any of the dusty heroes who peopled the John Steinbeck novels I loved.

He was a symbol, a poor man daring to stand up for the workers from which he sprang, to speak for them, and I liked the symbol.

Out of school and looking for a job, I became a reporter for a daily newspaper in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, a place as mythical as Cesar Chavez had been in my youth.

In this place, both became real for me. Cesar Chavez was a shorter man than I expected, the thick black hair I saw in old photographs having turned a thatch of gray, the lines on his face having deepened. The San Joaquin Valley, a vast smoky place scored with a gigantic grid of perpendicular roads, took its shape from farmers and a history unknown to me as the child of an itinerant Air Force Mechanic.

Something else became real for me at that place and time: The hatred farmers held for Cesar Chavez.

He was the devil. He was "that goddamned Cesar Chavez." People mispronounced his name Chu-VEZ. One former assemblyman who battled Chavez used to spell his first name C-E-A-S-E-R in press releases.

I heard he was the man who stirred up trouble for farmers by causing unrest among farm workers. I heard he intimidated farmers into signing labor contracts with his union, threatening violence and using it. I heard he threatened to destroy the industry with wild claims that farming poisoned workers and consumers.

I heard all of these and then I met the man. In his death I'm left with a cloudy soup of feelings.

He was rallying workers at a large farming operation in the south San Joaquin Valley when I first saw him. Some workers were trying to win United Farm Workers Union representation and Chavez had come to spur the effort toward an election.

A knot of maybe 200 people, waving red banners bearing the Aztecan eagle symbol for the union, filled a small community hall to hear him. They didn't represent all the workers at this operation, but their shouts of fierce passion made them seem more numerous.

Chavez spook briefly to the crowd in Spanish, raised its spirits, and departed. The election took more than a year to decide. The union lost.

Chavez came again to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the union's radio station in Woodlake. When he arrived at a nearby fairground for the day-long party, people quickly surrounded him, stretching their hands to him. He clasped the outstretched hands and embraced the small children who pressed close to him, and the crowds fell in behind him like a boat's wake as he walked about the fairgrounds that day.

I waited until late in the afternoon for an interview, when finally his bodyguards — including some off-duty city police — ushered me into a makeshift courtyard.

Chavez sat across from me in a folding chair, his sat eyes nearly hidden behind folds of skin, and challenged every one of my questions. With a wave of his hands, a firm shake of his head, the smile of a prosecuting attorney discovering an opening, he turned each question into a clumsy attack on his union and his causes.

He made each question an opportunity to attack farmers and the pesticides they used. Cesar Chavez put the blame for cancer in young children on all farmers.

In the course of a few brief moments, the man I once thought was a myth made me his real enemy.

Chavez dismissed me, the bodyguards closed ranks, and the union leader returned to the throngs of people who thanked him for dinner and a party.

After I came to work at Ag Alert, Cesar Chavez made a stop at California State University, Sacramento, to build support for a boycott against table grapes. He still regarded virtually every question from the press as a thick-headed accusation of his cause. But he had won over another fiercely passionate knot of people at the univerity, and leaders of major cities, including San Francisco, pledged to support the boycott.

Farm Bureau and other major agricultural organizations retaliated by boycotting San Franci

Over the years, I have read death notices for the union. Some former UFW officials left because they said Chavez refused to delegate authority, made no plans to pass his power on, and wouldn't consider changing the union's strategies to match the times.

Chavez and the union denounced the state Agricultural Labor Relations Bord he helped create, saying former Gov. George Deukmejian turned it into an advocate for farmers rather than farm workers.

Membership plummeted, labor contracts dissolved, the union built luxury homes with non-union labor as investments and it lost millions of dollars in court damages from labor strikes it waged.

Chavez' 36-day hunger strike in 1988 to advance the grape boycott failed to ignite the emotional fire of the hunger strikes that launched his union in the 1960s.

Most recently, UFW Vice President Dolores Huerta, Chavez' sister-in-law who founded the union with him and marched beside him for more than three decades, left the organization (editor's note: Huerta had taken a leave of absence to focus on women's rights).

He was an icon for another age, a folk hero, a malcontent. He led with, as someone said, quiet charisma, but he distrusted criticism. Perhaps the United Farm Wrokers union has die
d with him.

But for me, Cesar Chavez stopped being a myth and became human.

It is as John Steinbeck wrote of Cannery Row: "Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'Whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peep-hole, he might have said: 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing."

Friday, April 19, 2013

Hunting goodwill

Might as well join the many memes and morphs
of Britain's 1939 war propaganda poster,
"Keep Calm and Carry On."
Bits of Monday's Boston bombing radiated across the continent to Tuesday's twilight swim at Lake Natoma, where matters tumbled endlessly in my mind as I turned over and over through the cool water.

Old ordinary matters garnered new ashen regard. Crazy thoughts gained credence.

Why? Why commit such a monstrous act at the Boston Marathon except to yank everyone's attention and then deliver your message ("I hate ___________ because ______________!")?

In rapid and tragic succession, one of the bombing suspects revealed yesterday is dead following a gunfight and violent chase that also killed a police officer. The other suspect is still at large.

Why? Unless these, if responsible, are just sick, unable to reason or communicate.

Or unless these sought terror for terror's sake, anonymous (for a few days, anyway) and agile, on secret terms.

Why? For fun? The thrill of the kill?

Introspective almost by definition, swimming lets me wonder and wander. Tuesday night it was about the nature of evil and the product of anger, even as I tried to outswim it.

Late afternoon is the only time lately that my buddy Doug can swim. Otherwise I avoid it. At Lake Natoma, late afternoons are the perfect storm of blinding sun on the homeward leg, wind chopping the surface, collegiate rowing crews and their zigzagging high school counterparts, along with friendly Hawaiian outrigger crews, recreational kayakers, families with their dogs along the beach — and the bane of my swim state, racing kayakers.

I besmudge them all unfairly in their long, sleek Huki-style boats; I've had sharp quick words with a few in the past, because I don't understand why they paddle so fast and close to the crowded shore, which we hug to keep out of the boat traffic. Some have told us in swift passage that they can see us and quit griping. But we can't see them and that makes us nervous.

They mean no harm. I think. They dart around us easily enough, though some have cleaved our swimming group with their sharp boats, it seems, just because they can. They could just as easily paddle to the far shore of the lake and race unperturbed and unperturbing. But they don't.

One paddler in particular races up and down, so close to the beach I'm surprised her carbon fiber paddle doesn't shred against the rocky sloping bottom. She always wears her ballcap pulled low over her eyes, and paddles with her chin set, always looking ahead, not even a sidelong glance at us or children splashing in the shallows as she knifes among us, windmilling fast.

I do not like her very much.

Last week I was convinced she had purposely trapped me along the shore where a tall cottonwood long ago fell into the water. The treefall marks almost exactly 800 yards from our swim starting point, and forgetful swimmers can get caged in its slimy green branches. We have to swing farther from shore to avoid it, then in again.

This paddler came at me just as I was starting to round the tree, and seemed to force me back into its branches. I tried to kick hard and splash water at her, just as I have in the past, but it was futile and I ended up with calf cramps, as always. I think sometimes about overturning her boat.

She was out there Tuesday, just as we were about to get in. "Hey, my favorite paddler!" I told Doug. We had to keep our heads on swivels, as Doug says, in frequent watch for her.

Up and back she went, her presence marked only by the brief close shadow she cast in the hard afternoon glare. Paddling into the sun, her face is a hard cold shadow.

Near the small island where we usually turn around, Doug, far ahead of me, decided to call out to the paddler as she passed.

"Hey, how's it going?" Doug said loudly, his yellow-capped head bobbing in the water, his big smile flashing.

Startled, she nearly dropped her paddle. "Oh! Uh, hello!"

Doug's moment changed everything, revealing she's not the evil Huki paddler I decided she was. She's a driven athlete, focused on her task, to the exclusion of the world around her. A bit irresponsible, perhaps, but not mean.

Whatever she's striving for, she works hard at it.

In Doug's moment, we may have reached d├ętente. Soon may come the conversation that starts, "Why don't you paddle on the other side of the lake?" or "I'll paddle wide when I see you from now on," some measure of understanding.

Was that going on in Boston, a measure of misunderstanding, of anger, of frustration, blowing up literally into hatred? Were moments missed, long ago, somewhere, that would have averted a tragedy?

Was it as simple as what one of the suspects supposedly wrote: I don't have a single American friend?

Simplistic ponderation, perhaps.

Keep calm and swim on.

I agree with the many who said right away the Boston Marathon should continue, would come back better and stronger, that runners should still run and athletes should still play, or else terror wins. I try not to think of the dead and injured, of the moment and these long moments after; I marvel at those who helped, making me examine whether I would or could, and reaffirming the idea that we exist overwhelmingly in goodwill. When you stop to consider how easy it is everywhere, at any moment, to maim and kill, if willing … goodwill prevails.

Goodwill may have its limits and borders, though. The world may say to us, "Welcome to a day in the life of Syria/Afghanistan/The Gaza Strip/Bangalore/Chechnya/Pakistan/Iraq/Mali." Families of children gunned down in Newtown, Conn. may say, "Our children were slaughtered but our Senators care more for their re-election than for even some small measure that would check whether a buyer at a gun show might use the weapon to murder others."

America shows its exceptionalism in the Boston bombing: Not on our soil.

In the novel Watchmen, one of the flawed superheroes in a realistic but alternate universe creates a disaster so horrific that warring nations set aside their hatred to combat the disaster. Thousands are sacrificed to save millions.

In my crazy swimming thoughts, I wondered if these who bombed the Boston Marathon were somehow igniting people's will to help others in crisis. Because that's what happened. Of course, I thought that about the Newtown shootings too, trying to make something reasonable out of insanity, that the shooting deaths of small children would temper our regard for guns. So far, nope.

What will also happen, I fear, is we'll ignore Benjamin Franklin again, who supposedly said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Who knows next where we'll not be allowed to go, and what we won't be able to carry, in defense of so-called liberty. Who knows whom our government will decide misguidedly is a target of our retaliation, and drag us into more bloodshed.

Now as ever, perplexed, I keep calm and swim on, agile and anonymous, on my own terms.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It's gonna cost you

When your brewpub springs a leak, better bring the Benjamins.

Just some friendly advice.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Summer cramp

Why does the shirt graphic tilt so far over?
Good question. Wish I knew.
This is the story of our Boy Scout Troop's descent into hell one summer camp.

OK, descent into heck.

A flashback triggered its telling. Part of National Geographic's new reality TV waste of time (pardon me … entertainment program) Are You Tougher than a Boy Scout? is shot at Camp Whitsett in the southern Sierra Nevada, where this misadventure took place. 

The commemorative shirt (left) literally should have been our red flag, our warning that events would not go well.

We tried to make a habit of creating new shirts to celebrate each summer camp. (Translation, I wanted to make shirts for the Scouts and talked everyone into it.) They were cheaper than the camp's own shirts (which Scouts could still buy if they chose), and they gave us a symbol of camaraderie trudging into camp.

Usually the Troop went to the similar sounding Camp Winton, run by our own Golden Empire Council of BSA about two hours due east of us in the central Sierra Nevada. It's a gorgeous setting on a massive granite slope overlooking a shining lake, quiet vast forest all around; the charismatic young adults running the place practice their elaborate and hilarious pop-culture-pocked skits for months before the season begin; the program offers just about everything we could want for our Troop.

Naturally, we wanted to go somewhere else.

Other side of the fence. Green grass. You get our thinking.

We were doing what we could to keep the older Scouts interested so they'd stay and grow into leaders, and they had already done everything Winton offered, some two or three times over.

(A Scout sketched the initial idea for the back art, and aren't I the perfect heel
for not being able to find it?!)
Camp Whitsett is where you want to go! adults from another Troop told me. They had taken Amtrak and a charter bus to get there; best time their Scouts ever had, they told me. Rock climbing and whitewater rafting, they told me.

Besides, the Western Los Angeles County Council of BSA ran the camp, and word was that if you ever wanted to attend its wonderland of a camp out on Catalina Island, you had to pay your dues with a visit to one of the Council's other mainland camps.

(Eventually we realized Catalina Island's camp lay beyond our budget, but our eyes were bigger than our stomachs back then.)

Let's go! I implored. Discuss, discuss, discuss … the parents' committee said yes! Book the camp, book the train, the bus, raise the money, ready the Scouts, design the shirt.

The shirt is meant to celebrate what for us was a big departure for these Scouts.

We were going big or going home. Prophetic.

I roughened the illustration to give it a worn look. Years of actual wear has enhanced it, I think.

For the front pocket art, I designed it to look like a packing crate stencil, and make it a tad askew, as if slapped on in a hurry. A parent in the Troop knew a shirt vendor who could give us a deal.

But the shirt vendor decided, despite my instructions, that the front pocket art was crooked and needed correcting.

Pause here: If you thought artwork was crooked, wouldn't you set it upright? Me too.

Instead, the vendor inexplicably tilted it more.

There the label lay, at a 45-degree angle. It just looks … stupid. Too late and too expensive to fix, the shirts went with us on the train.

That is, when the train finally showed up. We filled up the Sacramento Amtrak platform with our packs and Scouts' families seeing us off. And waited. Excitement dulled to guarded patience and fell to annoyance.

The train was three hours late. Thirty-some kids, deprived of their electronic games for a week; 10 or 11 adults, anxious to salvage all this preparation. Three hours. Do the adventurous math.

Finally aboard, we reached Bakersfield, having arranged with the bus charter to accommodate our late arrival. The charter runs the route quite frequently from the Bakersfield station into the foothills and the low Sierra to the camp; it turns out a lot of Troops come to Whitsett for the same reason we did.

Except our bus broke down twice on the rolling hills, and the charter had to transfer us to another bus that worked. Thirty Scouts, 10 or 11 adults, 1.5 percent morale.

We found out the hard way what Troops chartered to Mormon churches already know: Scout summer camps often have no backup plan for late-arriving Troops, no meals held over, no emergency campground for temporary lodging, no paperwork set aside for us, or staffer to process them. Troops from Mormon churches, honoring the Sabbath, often come to camp a day late on Mondays and put up with this often.

Hungry and tired and uncertain, the Scouts and adults attended the opening campfire, where the first thing the camp director told all the Scouts in camp, in the glow of a bonfire, was that he and his staff were very tired from the week before and didn't have a lot of energy for us this week.

I suddenly missed Camp Winton with all my heart.

By Tuesday the Scouts and adults were back in a rhythm, well fed, paperwork completed, merit badge classes finally settled, familiar with the camp and comfortable with our out-of-the-way campground. And we did partake of Whitsett's unique offerings, rising at 4 a.m. to climb Sentinel Peak before breakfast, and whitewater rafting a section of the Kern River (though the river guides melodramatized to make the journey seem wilder than it was). I swam a mile in the camp's lake, which was really a grassy creek the camp dammed for the summer and then had to restore after.

In the ensuing years, the Troop camped elsewhere, including Camp Royaneh north of San Francisco (which has no lake) before returning again to Winton and its jewel, the Upper Big Bear Reservoir. How a lake makes a summer camp!

But our Scouts never wanted to venture far, for any outing, ever again.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Getting yin yangy with it

Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.
— George Santayana

Sometimes both are said over beers.
— Shawn C Turner

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shaking it off

OK, one game. Phhhhhht.

Playoff atmosphere on Opening Day … against the Dodgers … in LA … where fans hate the defending world champions even more than usual.


So LA's starting pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, throws a complete-game 4-0 shutout and breaks the game open with a leadoff homerun in the eighth. He's no slouch.

Hey, any other game, Matt Cain throws seven scoreless innings, that's a win, right? Am I right?

Stuff happens. Rust. Jitters. LA people can be rude sometimes. You know how it is.

April Fool's Day joke? Hmm… nah. The paper today says the Dodgers won.

Not worried at all.

Giants got nothin' to prove.

Plenty of season left.