Thursday, May 30, 2013

Two steps back

Somewhere in America, in a room off the main church, the following will never take place:
"Crisp opening, Scouts! Very patriotic. OK, Senior Patrol Leader, what is the Troop doing tonight?"

"Yes sir. Let's see … the new Scout patrol will meet to discuss 'What is homosexuality, anyway?' with David's dad. We were going to have Tommy's mom as guest speaker, but since she's one of the gays, we can't have her leading anything."

"That's being prepared. What else?"
"OK … the Bear Patrol needs to finish modifying its patrol flag to incorporate the rainbow colors … and the senior patrol will work on their Citizenship in the Community merit badge with an analysis of the Homosexual Agenda and how it will run the Troop. We'll play ultimate Frisbee and … that's about it."

"Great! Oh, one more thing, Scouts
. BSA has issued this new oversized bandanna. It kind of folds out … look how large this thing gets … you wear it under your hat, like so, and it drapes over your body. What's that, Tyler? Yes, yes, it does look kind of like a burqa, with the mesh eyeholes and everything. With the new membership policy, we can't be too careful that you gays in our Troop may want to jump these straight boys' bones. This — burqa, if you will — will cover you up and deliver the gay guys from temptation. Keeps away mosquitoes too! OK, Senior Patrol Leader, let's get started!"
Ridiculous, of course, but some critics imagined as much when last week directors of the Boy Scouts of America decided to allow boys who are gay to join Scouting. Adults who are gay are still barred from participating as leaders.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an Eagle Scout, likened homosexuality to a fad and said, "For pop culture to come in and try to tear that up because it just happens to be the flavor of the month, so to speak, and to tear apart one of the great organizations that has served millions of young men … that is just not appropriate.”

A fad. For as long as humanity.

Upset parents described how gays have forced their agenda on Scouts, as if Scouting is now about being gay and celebrating homosexuality. Some have said they'll leave Scouting; some others say they'll try to create a similar group that upholds Scouting values. The irony: Scouts opposed to the ban have been trying to do the same thing for years, while working with Scouting to change the membership policy.

As if being gay had anything to do with values, instead of being the way some people are born.

Scouting is about boys who want to go outdoors and cut things with knives and burn stuff. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation.

Imagine if Scouting banned African Americans because they corrupted Scouting values. You'd laugh, but in Boy Scouts of America's early days, forces moved to do just such a thing.

W.D. Boyce, one of Scouting's founders, fought from the start to open Scouting to all despite race or creed. Of course, Scouting was right. It is right to lift this ban, too.

"While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting," Boy Scouts of America announced in its decision last week.

What I don't understand is why Boy Scouts didn't lift the ban entirely. Half a decision is no decision at all.

Judging by the first-day news stories, foes of the ban are happy, if not satisfied, with the decision. It's a stutter step, an appeasement to those outraged at even suggesting a change. Once the bluster and recriminations have passed — once some churches cut ties with Scouting and Troops find other places to meet — once everyone remembers that Scouting is about cutting things with knives and burning stuff, and adults telling them not to — then Scouting will lift the ban for leaders too.

I read the BSA board decision differently: This gay thing? Son, it's just a phase you're going through. Once you turn 18, you'll return to your "values" or you'll be through with Scouting.

The irony remains: An organization that purports to nurture citizen leaders in a country working toward liberty and justice for all, can't also say, "Well, it's really liberty and justice for some."

I hope this is just a phase Scouting is going through.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Habits of the heart

The cover Liam designed for the commencement program; the university president
Just 93 steps into the journey, unexpected and wonderful news erupted.

"By the way, somewhere in the midst of the communication and education crowd is Liam Lewis Turner," said President Paul Zingg. "Liam, can you wave?"

Just before walking behind the stage, I saw our son rise from the sea of Chico State graduates in black and red and blue. "Liam designed our (commencement) program," said Zingg. "Absolutely beautiful piece of graphic work."

Besides designing the interior pages, Liam had created for the cover a word collage in the shape of Chico's Hooker Oak, once considered the world's largest live oak, fallen long before these college students were born (36 years to the day, Liam said, that the design was approved). He filled the art with the names of landmarks and community charms to which the graduates could relate, the names of places that Liam knows and loves. 

Liam clamped a hand over his mortarboard in the breeze. He had painted a Lorax-y character on the top, complete with plastic goggle eyes, and the notation "98.75%."

("Will you succeed? Yes, you will indeed!" wrote Dr. Seuss in Oh, the Places You'll Go! "98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed!")

Just beneath the front corner of his mortarboard he painted "42:" The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, according to Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

His was the only student's name the president singled out in his opening remarks.

I texted Nancy: "How about that?"

I was walking — walking because I was too antsy, walking because the press of proud humanity would have forced me to kneel against a barricade for the three-hour ceremony. I recommend walking for parents of future graduates; use social media to organize an impromptu walking club (ask your child how); circle the stadium track together; you'll hear everything, see what others will miss, and you'll greet your graduate afterward energized and relaxed.

Three miles later, an announcer called his name again, one of the few times his full name would ring out in public: William (after my dad) Lewis (after Nancy's dad and her family) Turner.

Magna cum laude. In the top 3 percent of his graduating class. Not bad.

Our son wrung all he could from college.

Every drop of sweat: Hero sweat, flop sweat and the sweat of honest work and play …

… every source of inspiration … every opportunity … every way to fail and try and succeed …

… every drop of the finest whisky the young aficionado could afford on his college-kid part-time income … every drop of the beer he brewed a couple of times with his roommates …

Every raindrop on bicycle rides across campus, precious projects facing ruin … every teardrop, I'm sure … every drop of blood, too, I imagine, though he didn't share that.

This is his last week in his college town — days starkly without obligation or appointments. He punctuated the last few weeks with the bittersweet process of letting go, posting photos and reminiscences and finalities. The last time at the desk of his on-campus job … the last time he'd walk this path to class. Last goodbyes to friends.

He graduated with a bachelor's degree in graphic design and a minor in photography, in an honors program. As art director of the student newspaper, he redesigned the whole thing while maintaining its reputation for national design recognition.

"Pride" isn't really the word for how I feel. "Wonder" works better. I love this kid and nurtured him, and provided logistical support, but the result of his learning and trying and failing and succeeding, the result of his thinking and ideas, is something novel and deep and outside of my understanding.

(Yep, this is a brag on our son. Our daughter, on her own path and triumphs and tribulations and world experiences in college, will get her time soon in this blog.)

Chico State promotes "Today decides tomorrow" as its slogan, and Liam seemed to take it as a challenge. I wonder at his desire to learn for learning's sake, his wanting to know, his willingness to use what he knows how as a lever to get him to what he doesn't know. I wonder at his dissatisfaction with his work, his wanting to do better.

President Zingg called these "habits of the heart."

I still wonder at the holiday break during which, inspired by a media consultant's challenge, he made radical departures in the school paper's design, devising new page grids and a nameplate, then returned to school and trained the design staff to use the new rules.

"I'm really going to miss this place," he said over the weekend. He's so very tired; (I think immediately, on this Memorial Day weekend, of many who sacrificed so he could have the chance to be so tired.)

Our college endings were so different. I stayed past four years, probably to complete credits, but my momentum had wobbled to inertia. Friends had left on their own paths; lodging, though sunlit and quiet, was temporary. I felt I had overstayed.

Liam stayed one more year, but for more opportunities, pursuing a minor, applying his graphic design skills to a job, taking classes he couldn't fit into four years. Enjoying life's rich pageant.

His leaving rips up roots planted deep. Leaving is hard for him; I needed to blow town.

I was marrying soon after school, a choice I made with all my heart, but a choice that influenced my path. Get a job and start a life together; figure out the rest as we go along.

Liam is not making that choice, at least not yet. He wants to save and travel, and has landed a job already that may enable him to do so. 

Six and one-eighth miles of walking later, the last graduate's name was called. We collected Liam and copies of the commencement program, and joined him in celebration over the weekend.

Ars probat artificem is Chico State's official motto. "Art is test of the artisan."

Liam soon starts over. New town, new life, still nurturing the roots of the life he left; new pursuit of the arts that will test him.

Today decides tomorrow.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What I did on my spring break, part II

Spring bloomed along a narrow road near
Barry and DeAnn's home.
The children who could, and sometimes their spouses, have taken their turns looking in on Barry and DeAnn Lewis at their home in in southwestern Oregon the last few months.

I was mostly useless and harmless during my turn. I helped watch TV. I ran errands, shopping for new things to replace broken things, sorting out the recycling. I took the first meager step in getting their little wooden deck ready for a new coat of paint; a task my wife and one of my brothers- and sisters-in-law completed.

I swam each morning in the little nearby lake, and I painted from memory — in watercolor — what I saw at the lake and around the quiet park where my in-laws live. Barry Lewis passed away Saturday.

I already posted one batch of paint sketches from the leather-bound watercolor pad my sister had given me. Here are some of the rest.

Barry and DeAnn's home is a peaceable kingdom, which the park inhabitants built in a seamless transition between civilization and nature. As a result, deer and jackrabbits and turkeys roam through as if nothing had changed of their feeding grounds, as if the humans are just another species uninterested in doing them harm.

Modified golf carts are indispensable in the park.
Neighbors never fail to wave at each other at the park, and at interlopers like ourselves.

The pervasive quiet of the humans allows nature to sing — whistling wind, hammering rain, even, I daresay, the rustle of hawks' wings in the thermals above the spruce forests.

Little Cooper Creek Reservoir ought to be warm by now … it wasn't exactly cool in March when I swam it. Fishing boats are probably thick on the water, forcing me to swim earlier and earlier next I get the chance.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Papa Bear

A sketch from my last visit helping check in on things.
Time to rest before the Mariners game comes on.
The running joke in Barry Lewis' household, where long ago I sought the heart and hand of his second (twin) daughter, was that he'd give me the clothes off his back.

Would and did, since more often than not I'd show up for a visit without all my Sunday best for the mad mass scramble — a dozen or more people, darting about the house — for 8 a.m. Mass.

Dad would give me an extra belt from his pants (which barely fit my thicker frame) or a pair of socks. Shoes once too, if I remember right.

At first Nancy interceded on my behalf, quietly informing her dad of my ineptitude. After once became a trend, though, my forgetfulness went public.

"Daddy, he did it again!" a younger sister might shout through the house. "Guess who forgot his socks?!" another might announce.

Barry Lewis would put the needed attire in my hand with both his hands, his kidding gesture that maybe also I wasn't capable of keeping track of these loaners, or even of dressing myself. His eyes would crinkle and he'd laugh big but softly, his teeth showing in his beard, white even then. I was the visiting galumph, the sideshow.

I remember Barry Lewis that way, a quiet and serious man whose words and actions carried sturdy weight. When he welcomed me back after my crazy trip to his home 30 years ago, my wife said it was a moment a great significance, his imprimatur.

When he must have decided it was the last time he would see our children, he held onto both their hands and told them to pursue what they most enjoyed in life.

Barry Lewis liked simple things and liked things simple, quietly enjoying his country music and the outdoors. Mirth ran in a deep undercurrent, bubbling up in jets of quiet laughter.

He passed away Saturday on the road, which was his dream, but not quite this dream.

From a camping trip 18 years ago …
Barry and DeAnn raised their family in a sprawling house in Auburn, Calif. Not fancy, but quirky and oh so comfortable, with multiple levels and nooks and spaces enough to accommodate 11 children. The backyard was a cool arbor with a sloping lawn, just long enough for a game of catch. Horseshoes clinked constantly on summer afternoons in the pit Barry built by the side of the backyard. Screen doors front and back produced precisely the creaks and squeaks and slams you want from screen doors, the symphony of home.

Towering sycamores reached to the sky right against the back of the house, and a massive deck extended out the back, cut away to accommodate the sycamores' great trunks. Nancy and I spent most of our wedding reception thanking friends and family on that deck, or beneath its shade.

Sean, one of the sons-in-law, an architect and builder, designed a new deck to replace the well used and well loved one. All hands were on deck over several weekends, children and their spouses doing what we could to build according to Sean's plans. I think we'd all pound the railing or kick the planking on subsequent visits, not a little proud of what we had all built together.

As all our families grew — many of his grandchildren called him Papa Bear — we hoped for more years of weekends at the ultimate grandparents' house, but we knew better. It may have been part of our collective dreams, but not Barry and DeAnn's.

The youngest child knew from an early age that as soon as he had graduated and moved out, the house would be sold and Barry and DeAnn would hitch up their fifth-wheel and take the road, anywhere they pleased, schedule be damned.

They got one of those maps nomadic travelers buy for their trailers, with spaces for stickers in the shape of each state they visit. Their map grew a colorful swath across the southern country, with some tangential pocks of color; but the map never got filled.

Health issues curtailed plans. Barry and DeAnn took a permanent address again, in a quiet forested park in southwestern Oregon, populated by like-minded nomads. They lived on an efficient square of property, with room for the fifth-wheel and the truck, a fenced garden to keep out the parade of deer, and a sturdy storage shed.

It was still not Barry's ideal; he and DeAnn also briefly held a park site in the high desert west of Las Vegas. He loved the dry heat of the desert, just as he liked hiking the high chaparral around Auburn, trails and roads gashed into the bright orange dirt.

A roulette of circumstances put them in damp, green Oregon for the long haul, where they made a home among friends. Nancy, who was beside her dad and mom with his twin Carol and sister Susan, brother Greg and my daughter when he passed away, said park neighbors have brought food and kind words the last few days. The park where they live flew the flag at half staff in honor of Barry, an Army veteran.

Barry Lewis, like my dad, was a model. He showed by example. He and my dad were can-do guys; to me, their sense of providing for their families was palpable. Over the course of ordinary weekend days he'd be in all parts of the house in Auburn, in his faded blue jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt, landscaping here, fixing the furnace or the plumbing, working in a cramped workspace beneath the deck to fashion a piece of hardware for a new purpose.

Various segments of the extended family would visit, and he'd come in at a time of his appointing to get a meal or coffee and visit, then go out and fix some more.

Weekdays he drove the quiet Volkswagen bug into town, to his job as controller at the savings and loan.

He lived and worked around the edges of daily life, not in the center, that wasn't his way. From my viewpoint he was unpretentious, prone to quiet, speaking when he saw speaking was needed. Christmases, as you can imagine, were huge events in the house, just by the number of people. Gift opening could take hours. Barry quietly went under the tree to divvy the gifts, and put his own by his chair, which he opened usually much later in the afternoon, at the hour of least attention.

Over time I've grown quiet — I don't really know why — and think often of whether a social trait can pass down outside of immediate lineage. But his was a more comfortable quiet, like his faded jeans, while mine is a more disquieting quiet. Still, the similarity makes me wonder if we become that way over time.
This might have been a sketch … I have no idea who
any client might have been. Though the child is
awkwardly constructed, the man is a subconscious
meld of my dad and Barry Lewis, the hem of the jean jacket
being a dead giveaway …

We inherited the love for camping from both our parents, and passed it on to our children. We have also tried to follow what we saw as the example of keeping as much as can, as simple as we can.

Latently I inherited a love of hiking, at least in time for our children to join Scouting. I wasn't the biggest fan of the long family hikes Barry led in the hills around the Auburn hills, in the heat and the dust. But I grew to like them.

To be fair, he wasn't the biggest fan of my drawing, or of trying to draw for a living. He'd probably disapprove of these drawings, by the absence of comment. But he approved of me, and of my marrying his daughter, so I'll take that.

In the park in Oregon, Barry joined in the communal chores and upkeep in which the members shared, and walked the roads out in the greenness around the little faded lumber town. Then health confined him to his home in the park, then to the 20 or so steps from bed to his easy chair. The outdoors, his refuge, was kept outdoors.

Mine is only part of a story to tell, one view; mine is a tangent as one married into the family. The rest is for others to tell, as I say, if and as they wish.

Suffice it to say Barry Lewis fathered the great American novel, so like the epic novels of so many other families, yet unique.

He passed away in the comfort of Catholic faith, the faith in which he and DeAnn raised their family, the principles in which they tried daily to live, the faith in which his faithful wife could let him pass in the comfort of seeing him again. Soon we will celebrate his life in the structure of his faith, which he tended to each early morning in prayer. Prayer for all. Prayer for me too, I hope. I trust.

Goodbye, Papa Bear.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Side by side

My best friend pointed out she'll be in her eighties when our next 28th wedding anniversary comes around. To be fair, so will I.

Would that we could still do what we're doing now, giving each other time. We're on the cusp of realizing how dear it is.

Time, this time, was a day in San Francisco to celebrate. Nancy and I became a strange hybrid of tourist, resident and nomad. We think alike on the big stuff, always have.

The City fascinates us. Not Fisherman's Wharf or the cable cars or most of what makes it memorable to the world. We avoid those distractions. Though we went to the de Young Museum a couple of years back to see a Dale Chihuly exhibit, we haven't been to the Academy of Sciences or the Exploratorium since before we were married. We always mean to, but then The City — the real one — catches our eye.

(My son brands the Exploratorium declaration a lie, since he remembers me taking him as a kid; I claim faulty memory. The larger truth still holds: It's been a long time.)

When we go — it's rare, sadly  — we pick a part of The City, figure out the easiest way to get there, then just walk and see what we find. Anything we find is fine by us. There must be 158 different cities and towns jammed into the city limits. Ordinary life is extraordinary here.

San Francisco is a city where seven or eight road races, parades and festivals can run concurrently and never affect one another. It's a place where a dozen people from all directions can pile into a little pet shop, stacked to the corners with white six-foot-tall bird cages, and that little shop will thrive by the sheer mass of pet-loving humanity living right around the corner.

San Francisco is a place where, close by the madding crowds, you can duck into a tavern where it's cool and quiet, an eddy in the river of people.

San Francisco is a nice place to visit. I couldn't survive living here.

We rode the fast catamaran ferry from Vallejo, the one that sidles respectfully past the decaying Mare Island Naval Shipyard before jetting across the Bay. From there we went into full tourist mode just long enough to buy day passes for one of those "hop-on, hop-off" double-decker buses.

I recommend it. Seeing San Francisco stress-free from high above the street is worth the money. Even 10 feet above the sidewalks, with no pressure to maneuver your own vehicle up and over these maniacal streets, lets you discover details The City keeps hidden.

We got on at the tour bus office two blocks off Fisherman's Wharf, sat in the open top, rode back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge in the bracing chill, through Golden Gate Park and then to a McDonald's a few blocks west of Haight-Ashbury, where we got off.

We never got on again.

Why here? Not for Haight-Ashbury and the chance to be forensic tourists, digging up the Summer of Love and gawking at its spawn. No, because it looked like Stanyan Street, where the bus stopped, is almost a straight shot up to the Sutro Tower, that landmark left over from the War of the Worlds, the yin to the TransAmerica Pyramid's yang.

(Named for Adolph Sutro, The City's 24th mayor, who made a fortune with engineering feats enabling deeper exploration of the Comstock Mine …)

I've always wondered how to get close to it, and now was our chance.

The last block of Stanyan Street lifts nearly 45 degrees below the tower. A few more degrees and we could reasonably have scaled it hand over hand. I laughed, giddy at how close the pavement was to my face as we climbed.

Through vine-covered eucalyptus forests and a park at the end of a neighborhood, up a long winding road and there we were, near the base of Sutro Tower. The rest of the curious had driven up.

From there San Francisco lay in shades of white, like broken blocks of gypsum spread on a dropcloth. Faraway freighter ships still looked giant in the south Bay. The Giants were taking batting practice at AT&T Park, far in the distance.

Nowhere to go but down. My knees complained. We found a few hidden sidewalks, followed a runner through a secret space between some buildings, down a street so steep its sidewalks are stairs, and into Noe Valley (named for José de Jesús Noé, last alcalde of Yerba Buena, before it was renamed San Francisco).

Here's where we discovered the wildly popular little pet shop — and the cool, quiet Valley Tavern. We had walked about four miles by then. Time to rest.

The Giants game had just begun, showcased on eight giant screens above the bar (a celebrity high-diving show played on the ninth). We slid into a booth way too commodious for us, and luxuriated in having it, ordered ales and porters and stayed seven innings, the Giants clouting the Braves.

The bartender said we could order pizza next door. The pizza place is endorsed by ace pitcher Matt Cain; even has a pizza named for him. It was kismet in pepperoni and sausage. We gorged.

Back on the street, it felt like a different day, a new mission. Conversation went like this:

"Left, right or straight?" We looked around each intersection, decided which seemed most interesting, and headed that way. Ascents seemed the most interesting to me.

Zigging, then zagging, we dropped into Mission Dolores Park, where hundreds and hundreds of people sat out in the sun, picnicking on blankets. We searched the entire park for the reason so many  had gathered (A concert? A festival?) but the attraction was nothing more than sun and Saturday afternoon. Simultaneous games of frisbee and catch and chase criss-crossed in the empty spaces.

Up and down a staircase just because. A couple was happily installing a hanging garden of plants in some kind of water-bearing fabric on the side of a glorious cube of an architectural wonder of a house, all exposed metal and great sheets of glass and gigantic reclaimed beams, dripping in dollars. We made up stories about their fabulous wealth.

Down through the Mission District and open-air shops grocery and clothing stores with signs in Spanish. Past teenagers on the sidewalk, pounding and dancing to a samba beat on giant drums. Up to an elevated fake-grass soccer field, where high school kids played full-contact soccer. We fell asleep on the real-grass apron, our feet burning.

"Left, right or straight?"

Down Potrero Hill in the direction of AT&T Park. We had walked too much; even though we had no plan, this was not part of it. But we walked; we are quite used to days like this.

Past the rising city-within-a-city of the UC San Francisco medical complex, around Willie McCovey's statue, so lonely on the cove opposite the ballpark. Nope, no players wandering around the park after beating down the Braves.

Past the majestic Ferry Building — the transit juncture of an alternate universe — along the piers to our ferry landing. The last one had left 15 minutes before, and the next one wouldn't be by for another two hours — and would have picked us up from the Ferry Building a mile back if we had known. 

We wandered into Fisherman's Wharf anyway for coffee, and watched a line of frustrated customers wait for a woman who went into the restroom and wouldn't come out. "We get this a lot," a barista explained to the line.

Since Fisherman's Wharf is what the world's tourists come to see, you'd think San Francisco would leverage all resources into making sure restrooms are clean and plentiful. But they're broken, locked up or incomprehensible biohazards.

We missed so much. We were within blocks of Mission San Francisco de Asis, the fountainhead of Western intrusion that turned this place into a city. One more zig and zag would have put us on the doorstep of Anchor Brewing Co., maker of Anchor Steam Beer, the only beer worth drinking at a Giants game.

But we didn't know to look for these, and didn't see them on our walk, so we can't really say we missed them.

The ferry came despite our fears — we've been stuck in The City before — and rode sleepily in the cold orange mist, the light sculpture on the Bay Bridge's cables dancing in our dream state. Back to our car and an easy late ride home. Nancy took one photo, of the two of us, on the morning ferry.

Time well spent. Happy anniversary, Nancy. I love you.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Being water

Right where a man had drowned 14 hours earlier, David and I guessed at the time.

"8?" I said.

"You think it's that late?" said David. "Quarter to eight, maybe."

I hoped he was right. We were halfway through a five-mile swim, and I had to be back in time for work by late morning.

The time and our tenuous grasp of it worried me, but not the swim. I could make the swim, even as the destination seemed to drift farther and farther away with every stroke.

The drowning, which I read about the morning after our swim, gave me gloomy pause … and made me wonder how I had come to this strange and happy place:

Almost all my experiences in water had been bad.

Before learning to swim, I once fell fully clothed into the pool at my cousin's house. Above the white panic and the chlorine froth and the ka-chucketa whoosh of blood in my ears and my own screams, I could hear my cousin laughing, could see her face red as she convulsed in guffaws.

She had no idea I couldn't swim, having learned how long before me. Of course she thought her older cousin must be able to swim! Of course everyone older than she could swim! She thought I was just putting on a show, so she had no reason to call for help. She meant no harm. The locomotion of thrashing and sheer will to live somehow bobbed me in reach of the edge, where once I vomited water I made her cry with my angry yelling.
During swim lessons as a kid, the coach said I was doing well enough that I might even be good at swimming distances. One set of lessons progressed into another, each with bigger challenges and requirements than the one before. At one point in the summer, I was to swim a long distance; I bet it was 200 yards, or eight lengths of the pool. I felt condemned to failure.

My dad told me to pace myself. I learned after his death he was an accomplished open water swimmer. He never told me this, never got in the water and said, "I'll show you how." I learned to swim from the girl teaching at the Cabrillo High School pool.

Such a little piss-ant kid, prone to tantrums and quitting over board games and games of catch, I'm sure I gave my dad plenty of reasons to let someone else suffer the trials of trying to teach me to swim. Tantrums in the water are unsafe.

I don't think I ever swam those 200 yards. I probably quit the lesson before then.

At a lake in Idaho where an uncle had a cabin, I was supposed to learn to water ski. My uncle was a man's man, the prototype of mid-century American men, taciturn, tough. The process of teaching me to water ski was to put me in a life jacket and into the water, put the skis on me, give me the end of the rope and pull me around with the boat, until eventually I was to figure out on my own to put the skis up just so and rise to a standing position.

But I didn't. I hung onto the rope as long as I could, as many times as I could, drinking water like soup, as they say, from a fire hose, before I couldn't take it any more and let go, bobbing in the water, blubbering. My uncle offered tips such as, "Oh, fer cryin' out loud! Just stand up! Just stand up! Is he cryin', now? Hey, quit cryin', ya baby!"

He left his two sons, my older cousins, in charge of the crybaby for the rest of the weekend.

In high school my drivers' ed teacher was also the water polo coach, Bob Boyer, who asked me during class to try out for the team. I can't imagine why.

He described water polo as a cerebral sport; maybe he knew I got good grades. But book smart ain't street smart. Book smart ain't toughness. As I would prove.

Still, Coach Boyer recruited me! How hard could it be?

Really hard, he neglected to say. Just staying alive required constant effort. It was sink, literally, or swim.

I showed up in my gym shorts over a jockstrap. All the water polo players had Speedo®™-style briefs; that alone should have compelled me to call it a day. But I jumped in. A coach showed me the egg-beater kick, a circular outward flailing of legs designed to keep players stable and afloat; that was the extent of player development; the season was already under way and most of the players had been together a couple of years.

I don't even remember Coach Boyer asking me if I could swim.

Immediately after being shown the egg-beater, we were to egg-beater around the perimeter of the pool, our backs against the wall, hands up.

The goalie was the classic Charles Atlas ad, a 97-pound weakling I knew in junior high who had transformed through water polo into the Muscle Beach body, shoulders out to there. He could egg-beater at high speed, lifting his torso from the water past his navel for several seconds. He made the sport look easy. It isn't.

Sputtering and sinking, eyes inflamed by chlorine, psyche rubbed raw by reality, I didn't last one practice.  

As an adult 12 years ago, I crawled onto shore during a swim test at a Boy Scout canoe training campout, and crept behind the group of other adult leaders who'd also finished the test. Dizzy and heaving, I was sure I was going to die, and wanted to do so quietly. I lost one of my new water shoes in the schlumping attempt to reach shore.

After another canoe outing, I dipped into upper Lake Natoma to cool down. Instead the freezing water shot through me and I arose as if electrocuted, splashing to get out as fast as I could, resolving never to do that again. This was late June, the water temperature in the low 60s.

Yet, I swim.

Why? It became the exercise I could stick with. For all that water drama, I still liked the water. Though not the best swimmer, I enjoyed it for its solitude, a sort of Benjamin Braddock kind of solitude.

As a kid I even invented a new swimming stroke, the corkscrew, the body twisting front to back, front crawl to backstroke. I imagined the Olympics would eventually incorporate the corkscrew. It didn't catch on.

Five years ago, I learned a new swimming technique in the pool, one that would get me from Alcatraz to the mainland with vigor. Gradually I left the pool completely for the open water. It wasn't easy — the first chop I encountered immobilized me with the same childhood feelings of collapse and panic. But friends bade me go on. Now I swim year 'round without a wetsuit, gathering distance. A pittance compared to many swimmers I encounter, but a lot for me.

It's hard to picture the panic and disorientation the drowning man felt the day before our swim. His name and age are known. Beyond that, he has become law enforcement's cautionary tale about respecting the cold water and one's swimming ability.

The water feels warm to us, about 55 degrees. David downed a sport gel and I ate a slimy cranberry-orange bar with a couple of gulps of coconut water, and we headed back into green water. Texas Hill, the little island, was next. Then the marker buoy. Around the bend, then a diagonal across the dark wide stretch back to the boat dock. David zigzagged far ahead of me.

I could make this swim.

(Rest in peace, Bob Boyer.)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Getting it out of my system, Case No. 1

You have been warned.
File this under the law of unintended consequences.

I see this little monument every day, while driving to wherever. It sits in front of a house near the corner of a busy street. It's a lovely house, I'm sure. But I wouldn't know, because the only thing I see — the only thing anybody really sees — is this curmudgeonly tribute.

Your guess is as good as mine, which is probably this: The man of the house (why oh why would I think a man is behind this?) found dog poop on his lawn once, twice, maybe three times.

Maybe he berated a dog owner he caught letting his/her dog do his/her business there the second time, and the dog owner delivered the dog a third time out of revenge.

More likely an untethered dog pooped there once, decided it was a safe place for pooping, bothering neither man nor beast, and did so again.

The bothered man posted this sign as passive-aggressive protest, thereby stamping out a pooping pandemic. Maybe he made the sign, working from a template he got online. It's an accurate silhouette in thin plywood, capturing a pooch in the pose of necessary evil, its hind legs well clear of its butt, tail stiffly cantilevered, to enable a clean evacuation.

Dogs don't like this reality any more than we do. My dog gives me that look right before, that sad "Avert your eyes, I beg you, for this thing I must do." Without being taught, dogs instinctively perform this move in every effort to avoid their own waste.

The sign, painted a pale shade of poop, has topped this little knoll at least 10 years, the lawn around it always carefully shorn … except the tall stalks of grass here suggest even the homeowner tires of it. Details have been added, just in case; the dog is happy. "NO!" is carefully stenciled. (The other side has a faded admonition, meaning maybe the neighbors down the street are off the hook for this violation.) Weather and water has dogeared its edges.

It is a monument to the exact act the home dweller detests — a dog at its most awkward, frozen in squat.
The years have managed to subsume this image in dark memory, until I drove by another home in town with its own similar sign. The questions arose anew:
  • Is this for dogs to read?
  • Does it denounce pooping as a function? Dogs of the world, lock up your bowels?
  • Is it a joke? If so, it's funny, especially since the home dweller doesn't let on.
  • Is it a grave marker, for a dog buried in that knoll, the last dog that pooped there? A burial mound, a devotion to the god of dogs at their most vulnerable? Is it holy ground?
  • Does it deter? Apparently so, since the lawn is always immaculate. Of course, I never see anybody walking, let alone walking dogs, or even being out of their homes on that street. Maybe dogs and their owners live in fear there, holding it in.
But the most intriguing question:
  • Why?
Really, how big a deal is it to pick up dog poop, even if the lawn became a dump site, which it didn't? At first I used to recoil at the coil of dog poop our dog produced, preferring she do so in secret. But as soon as she was ready to go for walks, I realized that's the main point of her twice-daily constitutional.

I've got the poop pickup down to one smooth motion.

Sure, it's a grievance to pick up someone else's dog's poop, but as long as you're out there, carefully trimming the turf at the base of the statue erected to anti-defecation, how long can it take?

It reminds me of another sign a few years back in a nearby neighborhood, this one packing-taped sturdily to a sidewalk. Long ago the homeowner had built the short walk on the property, creating a little section on the street corner for ornamental plants.

The sign warned, in all caps, "THIS IS NOT A SIDEWALK!"

The sign maker had given Magritte one more twist. It is in fact a sidewalk, which is hard to dispute. The warning meant, more likely, "Private property. Do not enter," which is reasonable, though I can't imagine the harm from walking on a concrete sidewalk, since hardly anyone around that neighborhood goes outside either. The sidewalk is safe from trammel.

That sign, and this, are the same: Futile. Funny, but futile.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Michael Ramirez also go boom!

Every so often an editorial cartoon educates and enlightens me, which happened with Michael Ramirez' 'toon this week, above.

Though I had no idea the topic, the visual metaphor is lightning quick despite its devastating weight.

(By the way, it's so hard to keep track of what's going in the world, and it gets worse every day even as information builds to a torrent, isn't it? I blame myself almost entirely, succumbing to the beguiling filters and baffles of irrelevant TV and celebrity news, ignoring 10 world events for the sensationalism of one. What news I manage to pay attention dismays and disorients me.)

I had to find out what the hell Ramirez was talking about — to the Internet, Batman!

Gosnell is Kermit Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor on trial facing charges of killing babies born alive, and of killing a woman by a drug overdose during an abortion. The jury is deliberating after six weeks of testimony.

Prosecutors say Gosnell delivered babies and then snipped their spinal cords because he didn't know how to perform late-term abortions, while Gosnell's attorney says the doctor performed abortions while the fetuses were in the womb. Gosnell's attorney said the woman died instead from unforeseen circumstances.

A two-time Pulitzer winner, Ramirez 'toons for Investors Business Daily; such is the state of our traditional newspapers that a top award winning cartoonist would now work in the narrow margins of specialty journalism, seen online more than in print.

Ramirez runs far to the right of my opinions, but he wins me by his mastery of art; I look at his stuff even though I know eight times out of 10 it's gonna be about anything-Obama-does-is-bad-because-he's-not-the-second-coming-of-George-W.-Bush.

Few are better than Ramirez at taking advantage of better printing and digital dissemination. The painting effects he applies to his black line art amplify rather than muddy the image, are inextricably woven into the picture. Note that he has even painted the shadow of the barbed wire on the children's faces.

This one surprised me; this one lured me in the way I'd find it impossible to avert my eyes from a car wreck, wondering frantically what happened, what is what.

Right away I saw the visual metaphor for the sign above the gates at Auschwitz, the one promising prisoners Arbeit Macht Frei — work will make you free.

Then I saw the doors to the ovens, the analogy that the babies Gosnell allegedly killed were disposed of dispassionately as so many Jews and other threats to the Nazi state. Then I saw the children; then the shapes (window hatches?) within the ovens, together with the openings forming haunted eyes; I'm guessing it's intentional, maybe even a spectral caricature of the bespectacled Dr. Gosnell.

This cartoon will receive letters of damnation and praise and threats and the usual calls for Ramirez' firing, as happened when last week The Sacramento Bee's Jack Ohman blamed Texas' lax regulation on the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion. Or maybe not; maybe his readership is largely limited to the choir.

Here Ramirez unleashes all the power of his pen, skewering me in the gut. His 'toon is a too-sharp mirror, making me reflect and question myself.

I believe in a woman's right to choose. I also believe in the power of education to make the best of that choice. I hear some of you: How could I have lived this long so naive, eyes half-closed to realities?

If Ramirez' statement railed against this trial alone, it would be an outrageous stretch, equating the Nazi mass extermination with, if the jury convicts, a callous if not miscast and misguided doctor. Given Ramirez' long documentation, though, I'd say he is condemning all abortion, at least late-term abortions.

Still, it's outrageous and raw, and Ramirez did his job expertly. He got my attention. He taught me something. The image lodges uncomfortably in my conscience.