Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hope as a four-letter word

How fascinating is this week's work by World's Best Editorial Cartoonist Pat Oliphant? Let me count the ways:
(Fanboys and girls of editorial cartoons — ye tiny but zealous lot — commence salivation …)
1. It's vintage Pat Oliphant:
Artistically, it's the cartoonist, two or three bottles of ink and a brush, and get outta the way! The result: A maelstrom of lines and squiggles and scribbles and scratches and the blackest blacks and the most delicate and telling of details, gelling into a complex serving of cold gall that few besides Oliphant can pull off.
Politically, it's Oliphant in the dark recess of his citizen heart.

Cynics could say Oliphant, the elder statesman of great cartoonists at 77, simply wanted an excuse to draw the villains of the Golden Age of editorial cartoons; I know it's a trope among several top cartoonists who joke they wish they had Nixon to kick around some more.

But here Oliphant unearths this lot for grave purpose. In fact, I think this cartoon is a personal appeal to President Obama; he's not trying to mess with the minds of the shrinking op-ed reading public; he's trying to mess with the president.

At heart, Oliphant is a patriot who regards his work as duty, ever vigilant to our country's flaws, ever hopeful that we do what we can to mend those flaws.

This cartoon suggests to me that Oliphant is about to give up hope in the president — as I am about to — dismayed that rather than ushering in change and progress and rescue of the Constitution, Obama instead carries on more of the same opaque imperialism he replaced, only moreso.

Oliphant has penned one (last?) wake-up call. Will President Obama see it from Senegal, where he's traveling?

Oliphant has been moving toward this statement for a while. Shortly before calling Obama out as just another crony, he produced this one:
Completely devoid of laugh lines, this cartoon is simply a severe interrogation, questioning President Obama's grasp of his office. It is cold and hard and cutting. Oliphant is fed up.

2. J. Edgar is wearing high heels. An Oliphant never forgets, and never foregoes a chance to pierce with his fiercest stereotypes.

3. It's raw art, no attempt made to erase pencil lines or to scan and Photoshop®™© it for clean clean contrast. It's as if the cartoon missed a step toward reproduction, as if Oliphant or an assistant rushed it to dissemination. It's full of smudges and extraneous pencil lines, reminding me of editorial cartoons I've seen in museum exhibits, warty and coated in Wite-Out™® blobs to hide mistakes from the press; we've been let in to where the wizard works the levers.


So appropos of nothing you'll miss it: Suppose California voters passed a proposition outlawing interracial marriage. You'd be horrified, or should be. But say it passed anyway, and proposition supporters argue (without any proof) that children deserve to be raised by a mom and a dad of the same color, that parents of different races will just not provide the correct upbringing required. Then let's say the governor and the attorney general decide that the proposition, though approved by voters, violates the Constitutional protections for all under the law, and do not support it.

Then say U.S. Supreme Court decides that since the governor and California attorney general will not defend the proposition, there's nothing to decide on and the proposition has no merit. Then say the proposition's supporters decry the Supreme Court's decision, saying the court has taken away our vote. Wouldn't you counter that even though the majority of voters approved the measure, it's still blatant discrimination and violates the Constitution? Wouldn't you? (The answer is yes.)

The same for the Supreme Court's take Wednesday on Proposition 8, which would restrict marriage to between a man and a woman. Now I'm hearing the same arguments, that the high court has taken away our vote. Ah, the essential barely fathomable beauty of our democracy: That just because most people may vote for clear discrimination against those they find different or loathsome, checks and balances protect us from our stupid selves.

Moreso utterly appropos: Why do people take pictures of the foods they're about to eat and post them on facebook, et. al? You could explain it to me, but it won't make any less silly.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Gang aft agley*

Along for the ride, past Coit Tower, behind kayaker Mark with the orange flag. All photos by Liam Turner
Despite my every sabotage, I did it — I swam the swim of my dreams.

Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge, on Sunday, six miles.
(Really, it was St. Francis Yacht Club to AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play, about the same distance, but that doesn't trip off the tongue or evoke quite the knowing enormity. More on that in a bit.)

(Full disclosure: tide assisted. Hell, tide enabled: The measured swing of my arms and languid flash of feet were mere pantomime, the current doing all the work. More on that too, later.)
The idea of this swim became a water parasite digging into my brain shortly after I began open water swimming three years ago. It took hold soon after the infection that caused me to want to swim from Alcatraz.

As a result, I share the mania of many open water swimmers — at the sight of any body of water, I immediately wonder whether I can swim it.

With every infrequent crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge, the parasite's tendrils would entwine my neurons and squeeze. I'd take a measure out to the Bay Bridge, scanning the distance and the sailboats and ships chalking the serpentinite water, and try to picture myself making that long crossing. Such a long, long way.

Two years ago, Nancy and my swimming friend Jim drove out to Treasure Island, the human-made village hard by Yerba Buena Island, on which the halfway point of the Bay Bridge is anchored. Between Treasure and Yerba Buena islands is a human-made cove, and a coach with was leading a swim. Jim and I were the only "skin" swimmers, going without a wetsuit. Partway through the session the coach, on a stand-up paddleboard, asked if we were cold. A couple of the wetsuited swimmers said they were. Jim and I just looked at each other.

Cold? Bring it.

Happy with hope and hubris, trying not to hyperventilate …
Alight with hubris, Jim and I looked out on the sunset, the water of the Golden Gate bright fire, the orange span of the bridge sharp in the late light to the right, the Bay Bridge looming up and to our left, The City high and alive between, just across the water.

"Let's do this!" said Jim. "Bridge to Bridge!"

"Yeah, we gotta!" I said.

"I'm doing this, you in?" Jim said again last December. was advertising a Bridge-to-Bridge expedition swim for June, and warning that the America's Cup (better known as Larry-Ellison-plays-with-his-toy-boats-and-lets-you-pay-in-installments-to-watch) would truncate the big-swim season. If you want to swim bridge to bridge, in other words, this was the only chance this year.
(Straight-up plug for Though I know of other expedition swim guides in the Bay Area, I'm sticking with Leslie Thomas who runs swim-art. Almost all the coached and guided swims I've taken have been with her group, and the vibe is strong: This is swimming for the joy of swimming. It's not about racing, it's about being your best self in the pleasure of swimming. I'm not a racer, I'm just trying to be a swimmer. If that's your thing, look up
"I'm in." I signed up right away. Six months to get ready, I remember thinking.

Thus began the best-laid schemes o' this mousy man, almost all gang aft agley. I needed to be trimmer, fitter, stronger to make this swim. This was no day at the beach, but a real swim. Do not trifle. So one by one, I tried and failed at every attempt to improve:
  • Bought a medicine ball and stretch cord (with ergonomically sensitive plastic handles!) for building my core. I took them out to Lake Natoma twice, declaring it my own outdoor gym, where I would perform a battery of upper body exercises, alternating swim days with workout days. The medicine ball rolls around in the trunk of my car, banging the wheel wells in mocking reminder …
  • Decided to start running. Pulled out a "Chi Running" DVD swimmer friend Stacy and given me a year and a half ago. Watched it twice on my computer. Bought running shoes and anklets. Anklets! Ran twice. The shoes are neatly stowed by my bedstand. Neatness is a bad omen …
  • Found our old PX 90 DVDs. Re-learned how the DVD player works. Did the stretching session twice and the cardio once … 
  • Pulled out my copy of "Lane Lines to Shore Lines," a wonderful if homespun DVD swimmers Gary Emich (1,000 Alcatraz crossings!) and Phil DiGirolamo made for open water swimmers, and Alcatraz hopefuls in particular. Watched 30 of its 70 minutes, stopping where the narrators describe the benefits of drafting off another swimmer. As if anyone could swim as slow as me …
  • Finally found my DVD "Outside the Box: A TI Program for success in Open Water," by Terry Laughlin, developer of the maligned Total Immersion swimming technique I practice. Worried how far away I'd strayed from the technique. Never opened the box …
  • Resolved to reacquire bilateral breathing skills (usually it's three strokes, breathe from the left side, three more strokes, breathe right, etc.). In the cold water I developed the bad habit of breathing every two strokes from my left side only. When I realized the swim would follow the flood tide into the Bay, I would be looking toward Marin County to the north, then Oakland and Alameda to the east, and I wanted to see The City on occasion too. I practiced bilateral breathing for maybe six minutes, choked on a lot of water, gave up …
  • Thought about swimming nearby Folsom Lake on windy days to practice in heavy chop, but balked at the too-warm water …
  • Made plans to swim the Bay. Went to one of swim-art's training sessions, never made it for another because of work or out-of-town obligations …
  • Forgot my comfortably ugly Crocs™© at home, and had to walk around Fisherman's Wharf in heavy thrift shop slip-ons I use for my tour guide gig. In an array of sweatpants and fleece jacket and bright yellow beanie and decrepit dress shoes, I resembled a west coast, 21st Century Ratso Rizzo
  • Forgot my neoprene hood and made do with a silicone cap and two swim-art latex caps, which squeezed my head in a rubber vice …
In the end, the only thing I did right was swim, almost every day, in the cold water of Lake Natoma. It's the only exercise I've been able to stick with in the first place, so I stuck with it. In the last couple of miles I've managed longer distances, 2.5 miles instead of the usual 1.3.

Then the cold water abandoned me and I worried. Temperatures have risen ahead of schedule, and Lake Natoma hovers at 61-62 degrees Fahrenheit. The Bay was siting at 58-60, a shocking difference when it comes to water.

Ultimately, Jim couldn't make the swim, but wished me good speed.

I told almost no one, and then just matter-of-factly. I didn't want to come back from a failed swim and explain; either way, though, you know I'd blog about it.

Such a swim costs six to seven times more than a typical open-water race. It's a trophy swim, to be sure —my combined birthday and Christmas gift, so you don't hafta get me anything now — a chance to swim in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But that fee pays for a lot of safety. The lead boat, passenger boat, chase boats and kayakers dwarfed in number and precaution almost all of the open-water races I've joined.

Leslie Thomas and her team needed all of it Sunday.

Twenty-two swimmers and friends and family boarded the Silver Fox at the St. Francis Yacht Club. I stayed with my son, helping him move the last of his stuff into his new apartment in The City. He came aboard with his camera.

Though evening fell Saturday bright and sharp with a fine golden mist — picture perfect — the entire Bay disappeared Sunday, swim day, under a great suffocation of white shapeless fog. Leslie began the pre-race instructions in a cold wind with her back to the Bay, all of us scanning in vain for shreds of blue sky.

All we could see of the Golden Gate Bridge, made more menacing by its veil …
The Silver Fox hauled its human cargo out to the Golden Gate Bridge. I tried to keep a smile pasted to my face, as I thought of the great distance this boat was making just to get to our starting point.

The bridge was a kaiju, a great beast of expanding size in the shroud of mist. It planted one leg in the water before us, its other leg lost in long stride in the distance. It bellowed its great fog horn of warning. A fishing boat curled past and then in front of us at high speed, causing our boat to rock sharply side to side. Excited swimmers and their spectators got quiet. Leslie moved quickly about the boat, talking on the radio.

A pod of escorting kayakers was lost in the fog. Leslie blasted a canned-air horn and listened for the kayakers' whistles. A sailboat appeared suddenly close by and vanished.

By radio, a kayaker said they were fixed on a location and that the Silver Fox needed to come to them.

After a while I just closed my eyes, because in the whiteness I had lost any sense of where we were. The fog horn's bellow quieted, then honked again somewhere else.

A tugboat's coming under the bridge, Leslie said. We have to wait.

Finally I saw the lights of the tugboat, thinking once it passed we'd jump in and get going. Except the lights disappeared and dark vertical shapes pushed out of the mist in their place. Trees. We were on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate. Or were we?

Then the bright shape of a building, a familiar building: We were back where we started, at the St. Francis Yacht Club. We'd start from here.

A shortened swim. I was happy: At least we could swim. We didn't have to cancel.

Into the water, warm and soft compared to what I swim in daily. My arms disappeared to the shoulder in the milky blue-green water, plumes of tan silt falling in where strokes had passed. The water rolled heavily, but somehow despite my inefficient breathing technique, the water didn't choke me or splash my face.

Buddied with Liz, a startup developer, we joined with kayaker Mark to become the Full Moon Flooders — our impromptu team name — and swam into the void. Mark was the only marker to follow, in his green shortie kayak with the orange flag fluttering behind. I lifted my head every four strokes, far too often, unsure of my surroundings.

In an incomprehensibly short time, The City pushed gray and muted out of the fog, moving fast past me. We were in a "super moon" flood tide moving at 3 knots, more than three miles an hour.

Done! Not done? not done …
Pier 39, make a hard right we were warned, or we'd get pushed east to Treasure Island. Just follow me, Mark said. The Bay Bridge loomed, and like most landmarks I swim to, seemed never to get closer until finally it did. I crossed beneath its lofting, forbidding green span, finished, elated.

"We're swimming to AT&T Park," Mark said, motioning another half-mile away. My will had dissipated at the Bay Bridge, but with Liz close by, I pushed on, easing off my shoulders, relying on my hips, one stroke at a time, the current still pushing us.

Finally, finally, finally, the Silver Fox floated in the distance, the light towers of the ballpark looming behind. Apparently the much faster swimmers had blown past the Bay Bridge and just kept swimming, and we followed impromptu.

Six-ish miles in an hour and 28 minutes. It typically takes me that long to swim three miles, so you get an idea how strong the current was.

With neither shiver or shake I got back on the Silver Fox we motored past The City, retracing the route, the bridge, the piers, the Ferry Building, Coit Tower. We swam past all of them. My son handed me two Oreo™® cookies, Leslie Thomas' post-swim trademark treat, and we watched The City go by, then Alcatraz. The Golden Gate Bridge remained concealed and monstrous.

So happy to be here …
Knowing all the factors Leslie weighed to determine whether to stage the swim has made me all the more comfortable. We were in safe keep. The smiling faces of the kayakers shepherding our route confirmed this.

I'll be back. Bay Bridge to Golden Gate Bridge next, hoping for bright sun, but swimming in fog if fog be.

Doing what Dory says.

*To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, by Robert Burns

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Most gross, man!

OK, just gonna post this, warts and all — one of my favorite attempts at digital art, but also one of my biggest disappointments.

Like the baseball book cover art, it's an homage to the art of Robert Grossman, whose work I gorged on in childhood. This was for a book of golf quotes and quips.

It features, left to right:
  • Ben Hogan, winner of nine major tournaments and one of only five to have won the four premier tournaments open to pros (I'm regurgitating Wikipedia here, having golfed exactly once — badly — in my life): the Masters, the British Open, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship
  • Rodney Squirrel, with no golf experience that I could find
  • Lee Trevino, who won six major tournaments and twice won the British Open, U.S. Open and PGA Championship
  • Arnold Palmer, peddler of motor oil and creator of a delicious non-alcoholic drink
  • Bobby Jones, considered the greatest amateur golfer … he co-founded the Masters Tournament … he triumphed before color photography, get it?
  • Jack Nicklaus, maybe the best ever golfer, with 18 championships
  • Chi Chi Rodriguez, winner of eight tournaments, best known for his colorful quips and a toreador dance to celebrate his shots
What Grossman achieved with airbrush — the smooth sheens and blended darks and folds of fabric — I did with something called a gradient mesh tool in Adobe®© Illustrator™©.

The mesh tool is a drug, man. Addiction is certain, and I overdosed on this work. Eighty-five percent of this illustration uses the gradient mesh tool, which turns out to be a memory-hungry feature of the Illustrator program.

Therefore, it is a gremlin, creating problems that appear at the least opportune moment.

This art, for example, looked perfectly fine to me when I sent it to the art director, all the way to New York City. All the hundreds of shapes were in their place, just so.

Then the shipment of book jackets with the art arrived at my office, and I saw the gremlin's work: Notice Arnold Palmer's left shoulder, and how his lovely yellow sweater becomes transparent, showing the crest of the hill behind. Notice how his loud orange pants all but disappear above the knees, revealing the dark green knolls of the golf course and Bobby Jones' backside. Palmer's pant cuff similarly disappears.

Cover art that would appear on bookshelves everywhere.

My screams could be heard for city blocks.

I have tried over time to exorcise the gremlin from this drawing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Of course, when I prepped it for this blog post, the gremlin arose with new vigor.

I remain humbled.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Third best use of a dollar

Liam's snowshoes, still ready to go after all these years.
Got a dollar? Buy a 10-foot section of Schedule 40 PVC pipe.

The best toy you could ever buy.

Here's the catch, though: You need a campstove, a big ol' beat up stewpot and playground sand, which you heat to 450 degrees precisely.

The heated sand funneled into the PVC pipe softens the plastic and allows you to bend the pipe into your own giant crazy straw — and probably release dangerous toxins into your body, but that's such a small sacrifice for a giant straw.

That's how we turned PVC pipe into the framework for snowshoes waaaaay back when my son was in Webelos, which is the older bunch of Cub Scouts right before they quit Scouting entirely or get a second wind and join Boy Scouts.

(I'm not a fan of Cub Scouting, now that I look back. More than anything, it seems less a program for boys' development than an added revenue source for Boy Scouts of America. It relies too heavily on adults to entertain kids, at a time when kids should largely be left alone to learn how to entertain themselves.

But heavily guided free time for kids is still in vogue, given our collective fears of what might happen to our children if left alone. My wife and I turned out to be highly susceptible, and our son seemed to go along with it.

Better for boys to enjoy their young unscheduled childhood, and then when they start realizing the world doesn't revolve around them, Boy Scouts is available for them to learn responsibility and leadership. And they'd be ready to make things like these snowshoes.)

As it was, these snowshoes were predominantly adult made, a combination of our desperate efforts as adult leaders to ramp up the wow factor for the kids — and consideration for the kids' youth.

Terry, the other adult leader of our Webelos Den back then, and I concluded that most of the literature aimed at the development of Cub Scouts was stuck somewhere before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The jokes that couldn't have been funny even then, the birdhouses to make, the objectification of Native Americans as noble savages — the whole program seemed stale, and the boys bored.

Snowshoes! I declared. We'll have the students build snowshoes and everything will be solved! The Scouts will gain new energy, take pride in their accomplishments, and we'll be the coolest Webelos leaders ever.
Battle scars have added texture to the
stars and bars motif Liam painted.
I sent away for plans from a Boy Scout Troop in Colorado, one of whose leaders was an engineer who devised them.

Repairing boat engines at the time, Terry made his living in an industrial park surrounded by tradespeople who had most of the supplies on hand. Generous business owners gave Terry bright red boat-seat upholstery (for the snowshoe decking), the inner tubes from big truck tires (cut and folded just so as the ingenious boot strap), nuts and bolts and metal rods (cleats and struts). I bought the PVC pipe enough for 10 pairs of shoes, and parachute cord from an Army-Navy supply store (to lash the decking to the pipe frame).

Cost for each pair came to about $11. They'll hold a 100-pound kid, maybe heavier. The plans also included a larger size.

Donner Memorial State Park was advertising a ranger-guided snowshoe hike near the lakeshore up in the Sierra near Lake Tahoe, and we timed snowshoe construction for that event.

The owner of an outdoor sports shop where I was looking for parachute cord said the snowshoes would never work. The cold would soon shatter the shoes around the Scouts' feet, said the owner, an Eagle Scout. Good luck, he said.

The project took about a month, with one cold Saturday in Terry's shop spent heating the pipe with the sand and bending them into the jig Terry had built. Terry's a man's man, knows how to use the power tools. The jig is still in the Scout shed somewhere, I'm sure. It should be displayed as a work of art, two thick pieces of plywood — a base, carefully angled board seamlessly joined to it, and then a precisely jigsawed outline of the snowshoe frame glued on top.

Once we heated the pipe with sand, then quickly let the sand run out, we had to drape the limp pipe into the jig and gently hold it in place until the plastic hardened again. Even with thick oven mitts, the hot PVC hurt our fingers.

The pipe was still too long for the jig, so Terry decided at the last moment to bend the ends of the pipe up slightly just to get them out of the way. The pipe hardened that way.

The Webelos ceremoniously donned oven mitts, then stood in the vicinity of the pipe heating process and sort of pantomimed the laying of the pipe into the jig, without actually touching anything. Out of worry for their safety, we wouldn't let the Webelos do the one thing they probably most wanted to do.

Before that day was out, we let the Scouts decorate their frames by lightly sanding them (to accept the paint), then spray painting them. Our son made stars out of masking tape as masks, then painted his frames patriotic red and blue to match the red decking.

Back at our meeting room at the Catholic school, we helped the Webelos lace the parachute cord and assemble the parts. A long bolt through the upturned tail completed the shoe and held everything in place.

I brought in a finished pair to the Eagle Scout sports shop owner. "I'll be darned," the guy said. "Maybe they will work."

The ranger up at Donner said we had built them perfectly for deep snow by keeping the tail of the shoes long and bending them upward. Just our dumb luck.

Off we went into the deep snow about 20 yards from the lake, through the campground unrecognizable for the thick blanket of white. The Webelos, in various imitations of Michelin men, wobbled in single file, up and over little hills and across meadows. The adults had rented snowshoes.

Scouts fell over and over again. Of course they did! It was a new adventure, but for most of the trek they stayed afloat above the snow, held aloft in their homemade shoes, in the dazzling white and piercing quiet of a perfect winter Saturday, doing something almost every other kid their age wasn't.

Ice ringed the lakeshore. Icy cold filled our lungs. Terry and I were satisfied, having reached nirvana as Webelos Den leaders. We had created the nearly perfect project and the perfect outing for it.

We counted on a quiet ride back down the mountain, cars full of quiet happy Webelos. After an awkward few moments unstrapping the snowshoes, I heard one Webelos declare:

"I'm never doing that again!"

And another conclude:


Liam's snowshoes still hang in the garage, on a bungee cord with pairs of store-bought snowshoes we rarely use, unfortunately. Maybe someday he'll take his pair with him on his journey as a man. For now they hang in the semi-dark, symbols: Don't stop plugging, don't stop trying to make a dent in the world, but expect the outcome to dent you back once in a while.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

… then you have nothing to worry about …

I dunno — I pictured more pomp and circumstance for the moment I surrendered my privacy.

(Or as I called it in high school, to no one listening, "bombs and circus acts."

Just a note to all you NSA/CIA/defense contractor spooks reading along for fun and profit: "Bombs and circus acts" is but a juvenile Cockney-inspired play on words, and in no way suggests the use of or desire for bombs. Or circuses or the acts therein. Moreover, Cockney may sound like a dirty word; it isn't.)

I imagined my privacy would disappear in a short, dignified but well-documented (perfect for social media! Trending!) ceremony in the White House rose garden, during which facebook®© founder Mark Zuckerberg would hand to the president a thumb drive containing all the personal information we willingly log into his übersite multiple times daily.

The crushed-velvet pillow with the silver tassels and braided trim, securely nestling the thumb drive ($24.99 retail), would be a nice touch.

"It was time," the president would say. "I told Mark (Mark!) I needed all of your information, and he said, 'I'm warming up my private jet as we text!'" They'd share a laugh.

Zuckerberg would explain in his brief followup how all the communications companies, in patriotic solidarity, aggregated all our data, everything known about us, everything to be known. Amazing what will fit on a little thumb drive.

Neither the president nor Zuckerberg would take any questions, a moot gesture anyway because the press would be asking none. As our public watchdogs, reporters would react appropriately on our behalf: ohhhhkaaaaaaayy …

Because we'd have known it was coming, would have known deep in our gut we were already giving up ourselves piece by piece, and that eventually it would be handed over for patriotic (meaning its opposite) uses.


Now, of course, we know that our government has been sucking away our private information for a long time, and that the suckage has increased as the data became ever richer. We've been drifting away for years in a data stream like ash piles in a vortex.

It happened not in one concrete gesture at the White House, nor in a chilling moment like when Winston Smith learned from a disembodied iron voice in George Orwell's 1984 that he had been betrayed. It happened with a long, slow, imperceptible whimper.

Our government has our phone records and Internet use data, with which we are told government spooks and spies can find patterns that may reveal terrorist activity planned against United States interests.

Democrat Dianne Feinstein, one of my U.S. Senators and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, last week responded to public discovery of this news with the equivalent of a shrug — oh, that old thing?

So did 56 percent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, who reported such surveillance is acceptable for thwarting terrorist activity. But 41 percent said it's not acceptable; good for the 41 percent.

I'm part of the 41 percent, who didn't expect the president in that rose garden ceremony to be Barack Obama. I expected different. I expected President Obama to right the strange course George W. Bush had set in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, in which we gave up freedoms in the name of freedom.

We moved in earnest to give up the idea of America as an idea, and regard it as a piece of property on which we live.

Under Obama, I'm sad to say, we surrender those freedoms in greater volume.

Here's what I conclude in my long, slow ascent in age:
  • Democracy is an ideal, a work in progress, constantly buttressed and degraded, the latter at a slightly faster pace.
  • The Constitution is whatever the prevailing power says it is. It guides law for the most part because checks and balances keep it more or less intact. As we become farther and farther removed from its principles, by weakened education and the world's rapid complications, the Constitution and our country face increasing threat as an idea.
  • The United States faces grave danger all the time; you don't even want to know how grave.
  • People serve on our behalf, without our awareness, to save us from grave dangers.
  • Those people go to extreme means in their vision of saving us. Sometimes they ask permission, follow the Constitution. Sometimes they don't; sometimes our legal representatives, sworn to uphold the Constitution, instead comply with these extreme means.
  • Science is cool.
  • The amount of data in this world is staggering, its manipulation stunning. Target®© stores use metadata (data about data) to map my daily habits and predict what I will buy.
  • Data can reveal patterns. Data may even prevent mayhem and crime; data may have done so already.
  • America and the world are too goddamn complicated for us citizens to follow. So much better for the data collectors and manipulators.
  • We do a terrible job as citizens, neither caring nor knowing how to hold our representatives accountable.
I get this. I'm even rational enough to hear President Obama when he tells us, "Nobody's listening to your phone calls. That's not what this program is about."

I hear it, but I have a hard time heeding it. The data is available for someone to listen to our calls, track our communications. Nobody is, we are told.

For now. That's what I fear.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
— Martin Niemöller

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The fourth bucket

What would Papa Bear do?

Would he have been outside, scanning the sunset sky, the ringing voices a comfortable distant blanket of sound?

Would he have sat amid the sound, soaking in the excitement of people who haven't seen each other in a long time, at least not in this number, who have come because of him?

Would he be in a corner of the expansive clubhouse in the park where he lived the last 10 years, a plastic cup of Carlo Rossi™® Burgundy in his hand, taking brief appointments with those who've come for him?

Would Barry Lewis have liked his going-away party? It's a push.

The priest had him pegged: When Barry was well enough, he'd drive DeAnn two miles early to Mass so she could practice her violin with the choir. Then he'd wait in their hulking truck — his monastery, the priest called it — until Mass began, because he didn't like to talk with anybody.

When the priest made this observation during his homily, a noise of recognition — a noise indicating "that's Dad/Barry/Papa Bear" — rose from the congregation. No ill will meant; he just chose not to schmooze.

The children who came, and their children, can schmooze to pick up the slack. Schmooze and laugh and ring the clubhouse with noise. The greatest aggregation of his children, grandchildren and family friends — perhaps since he and DeAnn sold their Auburn home and hitched the fifth-wheel — gathered last weekend in southwest Oregon for the funeral Mass and a couple of days of get-together. Barry Lewis passed away May 18 at 78.

Some stayed in a hotel in the little town. Some camped in a tree-embraced section of the park (probably where Barry would have hung out if he could). Some slept in the tool shed next Barry and DeAnn's trailer, the standard accommodation on family visits.

The family swarmed the pizza parlor in town the first night, filled the front of the little church the next morning. Grandchildren played music, read the prayers of the faithful. Daughters read the Bible verses, made the display of photographs and PowerPoint™® presentations. My wife Nancy and her sister Sharon reminisced before the final prayer, describing Barry's life in three "buckets" — family, work and the road.

Dad has reached the end of the road on this earth, Sharon said, and is looking upon us now. The priest brought up the fourth bucket, life after, which Barry believed deeply. The priest said he had hoped the journey to Heaven would be a fast trip among the stars and the vast splash of space.

Stephen and Carol shopped for food for Saturday's dinner, the last time the group would be together, Stephen supervising kitchen duties, Greg supervising cleanup. All the adult children there engaged in anxious planning, talking over one another to contribute to its success. DeAnn spent the evening quietly among her childhood friends and neighbors from the park, an eddy in the flux of dinner.

Merle Haggard sang through the night over a CD player.

Before dinner, instead of a blessing, Stephen carried out a tray of foam coffee cups. Third-oldest daughter Susan called up on her laptop a photo of Barry hoisting such a cup on a long-ago camping trip, and all raised their cups, filled with Carlo Rossi Burgundy from a gallon jug — which Barry prized above water.

Sent out to store away excess food, I made my way through the dark, across a little footbridge to the trailer. It was quiet and cool outside, the last of orange leaking out of the sky. Joan's family was setting up for the night in the shed. The trailer was illuminated by one dim light above the chair. Barry's chair in the corner is gone now, and DeAnn's is moved over to the center of that space.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Gross, man!

Such a sponge for the illustrators of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, I was bound to leak my influences here and there.

The sketches for this project didn't hint at where I was going, but once I ran this through the computer and started fitting the pieces, my fascination for Robert Grossman spilled out. Take a look and call me a hack thief. Or a well-meaning zealot. Whatever.

Grossman worked his wizardry with airbrush; I paid homage with ones and zeroes and Bézier curves.

Maybe it looks like I'm playing to the worst stereotypes here — and I am! — but the images come from the book of baseball quotations and anecdotes, for which this is the cover art.

Typecast are, left to right, Lou Piniella, Yankee's slugger turned paunchy volcanic manager; Tommy Lasorda, longtime Dodgers manager with more controlled capacity for eruption, whom Giants fans still revile; Yankees catcher and manager Yogi Berra, he of legendary sayings; Reds outfielder/former manager/Major League pariah Pete Rose, who redefined intensity; and Yankees Manager Casey Stengel, Berra's wise predecessor who as a player once won over a jeering rival crowd by tipping his cap at the plate and releasing a sparrow he had somehow tucked inside.

Play ball! By the way, last I checked the Giants — with a big assist from umpires — still suck.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Triple ka-thud!*

Don't let it get to me … don't let it get to me … don't let it get to me …

The Giants are bad.

Can't pitch! Even the ace of the staff, Matt Cain, makes me hyperventilate, wondering when the next third-inning shelling will rain down on him, and the batters will hit around. Starters walking batters, then immediately giving up runs on timely hits.

And don't get me started about Tim Lincecum and why he's not in the bullpen, where he did so well during the postseason last year.

Can't hit! If they looked over at the opponents' dugouts, they'd see players who can hit. Maybe they want to take notes.

Marco Scutaro, so consistent I'd be suspicious if I wasn't a Giants fan, is striking out. Looking! He never does that!

Too many times in which, with runners in scoring position, Giants needing runs, the opposing pitcher showing barely perceptible signs he's tired, and the next Giants hitter swings at the first pitch! for a week inning-ending grounder. Ohfergawdsakes!

Can't field! Can't field! Magicians of defense, almost all of 'em. Now they can't find their asses with both hands. Balls gettin' by 'em. Balls fallin' between 'em! Outfielders overthrowing the cutoff in vain attempts to make the big out, and giving up runs instead. Giving up runs with sloppy play.

Now players are hurt. Angel Pagan is out of the outfield with a hamstring pull. Pablo Sandoval is out — again! — with a foot injury. In each of the last two seasons, he sat out when surgeons had to remove the hamate bone from one hand and then the other. We didn't even know what a hamate bone was, but I'm sure doctors will now find one in his foot and remove it and thus the Panda from the lineup. Then the other shoe will fall the season after next.

The last of the Giants are just now getting over the flu. 

How did this happen? You bring back all but four of the players from last year, when you won the World Series, you should come out like champions. Instead, others are championing your defeat.

The St. Louis Cardinals, with the best record in baseball, were the latest to pound the Giants, as if taking revenge on San Francisco's wild come-from-behind National League championship last season. Cain nearly pitched a perfect game in his win — if we ignore the third inning (my preference), in which the Cardinals got seven runs on nine hits. The Giants took the last game in the series, showing the old spark, but looked utterly without hap in the first two.

Today San Francisco hosts the Toronto Blue Jays, who last month made the Giants look like cricket players trying to learn this strange American game. Maybe today the Giants will turn things around, maybe they won't.

That's baseball.

It's true: Good teams "scuffle" (baseball euphemism for suck) and lose games in great batches, then start winning again. Cellar dwellers pull out win streaks from who knows where, and make good teams scuffle.

And that's entertainment, and owners hope fans see it that way and continue to buy tickets and buy Fords®© and Mitsubishi™® air conditioning systems and Solar Co.®© sun panels to keep the lights on at AT&T park.

It's entertaining to watch speedy Gregor Blanco, filling in for the injured Pagan in the leadoff spot, swing at the very first pitch of the game for an out, instead of making the pitcher show what he's got, instead of bluffing a bunt and making the pitcher nervous he'll get on and steal second and then third. Really, it is! Entertaining! The result is that I storm out of the room in disgust (and listen to the game on the radio in my office instead), and that's entertaining to my family.

Small comfort comes knowing thousands of other fans share my frustration. Some share it harder than others. Calls flying into the radio talk shows call for the Giants buying the best pitcher available for a huge contract comprising just two starts, or until pitcher Ryan Vogelsong's broken hand heals. Others want wholesale lineup changes, with prospects from the Triple-A club. Some, as usual, want General Manager Brian Sabean fired. Someone always wants Sabean fired, no matter the record.

My own loony idea, which I won't proffer on a radio show, is to have the Giants forfeit a game. Go fishing, hang out at the beach, take a mental break that doesn't involve letting a fly ball skip under your glove. Of course, I'm not thinking it through, all the money the Giants would lose in ticket sales, broadcast shares, unprecedented fines from Major League Baseball, not to mention the irreparable damage to the team's reputation, dubbed quitters from that day on.

But they need to stop the world and get off somehow, order a do-over.

The worst part about the Giants losing are the Giants radio commercials, which of course celebrate the Giants winning so you will buy tickets to the game.

Featuring breathless play-by-play, they invoke the gum-swallowing miracle of Giants baseball.

"Posey (crack!) left-centerfield, hits it high!" Duane Kuiper will shout. "Hits it DEEP! It's OUTTA HERE! And we are GOING HOME!"

"Crawford coming around third, he'll score," announcer Dave Flemming builds steam. "And Pagan COMING AROUND THIRD, and FLANNERY'S GONNA SEND HIM! Here comes the relay! Pagan slides! HE'S SAFE! IT'S AN INSIDE-THE-PARK HOME RUN AND THE GIANTS WIN IT 6-5! MY GOODNESS!"

That hurts. These wonderful outcomes happened only a couple of weeks ago, but it feels longer. Like it never happened. Like it's myth.

KNBR, the Giants' flagship station, needs a special set of commercials to bring fans down easily. Something like, "The Giants need some runners here …" or "Plenty of baseball left …" Less pomp, more circumstance.

Times like these also make Mike Krukow a nuisance. He's the Giants' color commentator, a former Giants pitcher adored by listeners because he gives you a player's insights and tells wonderful stories all with a players patois.

When the Giants sour, though, it's a lot of ptooey.

Krukowisms begin to stale. For an opponent's strikeout: "Grab some pine, meat!" For just about any woman wearing Giants' paraphernalia in the stands: Gamer babe. For a Giant getting a third hit of game: "Have a night, (insert name here)!"

"Thank you very nice!" Krukow will say when a player gets a lucky bounce. "Atta babe," for anything good. Lately he overuses the phrase "count leverage," when a batter has a 2-1 or 3-1 count and can expect the next to be a good pitch to hit.

Those don't torment me so much as when he presents the teams' defense (always to the backdrop of what sounds like a '70s porn movie, for some reason) at the start of the game, and he just HAS to say that the catcher is "in the SKWaaaHHHT, putting down the signs." He doesn't say, "And catching is Buster Posey," or "Buster Posey is behind the plate." No, he's always "in the SKWaaaaHHHT." I hate that, and even more when the Giants are losing.

Also, he promotes Coors Light®©, which he always describes as "the world's most refrrrrrrrr(rolling his r's here)rrrrreshing … beeyear." Aaauuuugh! Nails on the aural chalkboard.

No better tonic than a Giants win — or two, or three — to help me tolerate the Krukowisms.

I know I said I didn't care if the Giants didn't win the World Series again, because they'd won two in the last three years. But I didn't realize how hard it would be watch them play like mortals.

I'll get over it. Next win.

Atta babe.

*Yet another Krukowism, for any botched play.