Thursday, August 29, 2013

Silly, silly job

As I said in the last post, I love sketches for their liveliness and potential, as in this cartoon draft.
Wandering the desert of What the Hell do I do With the Rest of My Life?, between what I thought was the end of my freelance business and the beginning of what I thought would be a teaching career, I took some odd jobs.

One was in a Boy Scouts of America retail store. That might merit its own post someday, when I figure out just what to show and tell about it.

I think I retained much of the liveliness here, mostly by
reining in my desire to color everything. As for the message:
(shrug). This was the last 'toon I drew for CASBO, the people
in charge having been dismissed. This might have been
their siren song.
Another was Marketing and Communications Specialist for CASBO, which sounds like a clown that rents out to kids' birthday parties but really stands for the California Association of School Business Officials.

It's a trade and lobbying group representing just about everyone else in public education who's not a teacher. Superintendents, their assistants, business officials, accountants, secretaries, maintenance and operations managers, custodians, all fit under this umbrella. Most states have ASBOs, and a national group influences them all.

My job included writing and editing a weekly newsletter … wrestling with rudimentary Website software to shepherd and massage weekly box ads advertising for school business official jobs available statewide … and managing the organization's "library," by which it meant bookstore, by which it meant I would process mail orders for CASBO publications and ship them out.

The first CASBO cartoon I did portrays a universal truth:
Lawmakers, a long time after they've ever stepped foot
inside a classroom, make laws they think will make
schools work better. They don't offer any money to pay
for these great ideas; then they blame schools, teachers
specifically, for when these laws fail the children. Hmmm.
I got to run the bookstore during one of CASBO's conventions. Upside: Half-mile long San Diego Convention Center, Gaslight District, Petco Park, the extensive trolley system and the beautiful San Diego coastline. Downside: I got to run the bookstore during the convention.

Every three months or so I got to have a little fun.

Occasionally, for example, I'd get to write a profile about some CASBO official for the organization's slick quarterly magazine. It had been a long time since using my feature writing muscles, so it was a relief to put two words together in a sentence and feel like I was actually creating something people would read.

I had no problem toeing the company line here. CASBO didn't really represent anything objectionable to me; support for public education is good in most forms. Maybe some of the business officials get disproportionately more than teachers, but the running theme there was, "We're working toward a common goal here."

Charter schools are the answer; everyone says so. So it's
natural they get the resources, right? The strangest sight
is of a charter school nestled within a public school,
running concurrently. What's wrong with this picture?
At least CASBO was honest about its editorial objectives, unlike the California Farm Bureau's newspaper, for which I worked, where the editors pretended we were an actual independent newspaper. 

Many times there I'd dislocate my brain trying to balance a farmer's six-word sentence with a reasoned argument by the loyal opposition.

The most fun I had at CASBO was being able to draw a cartoon for its quarterly magazine. 

It was far from perfect. I was the draftsman for ideas generated by the CASBO executive director and my boss, who was also the magazine editor. With rare exception, they gave me the idea, the cast, the signage requests, and it was up to me to compose it all.

I frequently pushed an idea to certain limits, and the executive director and editor would pull me back in. Several cartoons went many rounds before we could all agree on the final version.

A variation on the theme above …
I didn't mind. The more I got to fuss with the cartoons, the less I had to mess with the job's other drudgeries. I got really mopey the minute I turned in final art for each 'toon, because it meant alphabetizing the CASBO library and feeling my eyeballs dry out.

With each 'toon I played with a different style, trying to be more blunt and immediate than in most of my other work.

These are kinda sorta editorial cartoons, and they beat the drum of a couple of distinct themes: (1) the state won't fund the rising mountain of laws and regulations with which it buries public schools; (2) the state pays more attention to public charter schools rather than solving public school problems; (3) the state government is going to hell in a handbasket; and (4) Arnold Schwarzenegger is a poopy pants.

Schwarzenegger was bad for education. Not that anyone has
really been
good for education …
A really big poopy pants. CASBO was not a fan of his leadership. I had to agree.

But lampooning the former governor every three months could not sustain me. I had to get out of that place and applied to teacher school. When I realized teacher school had falsely advertised its program was ideal for full-time workers (right, as long as your boss didn't mind frequent, sometimes lengthy and hastily scheduled days off to work in classrooms!) and had to leave CASBO to take up substitute teaching, I wasn't really all that sad.

I broke the news to my boss. "That's too bad," she said. Pause. "Can you still draw cartoons?"

Really, that was her concern? Oh, screw it, what did I care?! I still got to do the best part of the job.

…really bad for education
Her boss then admitted my job had been a mashup of a couple of other jobs; they had meant to put more more work into defining the creature they had created, but never got around to it. 

Somehow I kept drawing 'toons while studying — until the two bosses eventually left CASBO — and kept freelance clients even while teaching, so I could revive my business after teaching without a herculean effort.

These are just some of the cartoons I got to draw over that in-between time.

Enjoy over coffee.

… and bad for everything else.
Concept for a California-is-going-to-hell cartoon …

…which became this

CASBO smelled bias …
Stylistically different, conceptually puzzling: This was
simply my CASBO bosses' way of saying, "Can't
we all get along?" I guess.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Root of all evil

David Suter, a great illustrator, inspired this study.

Suter mastered mashing multiple disparate elements to create a single dominant (if concealed) message.

The message emerged from the shape of the elements in concert, or from the nothingness held bound by them. Suterisms, they're called.

This is for a magazine story on the pinnacles and pitfalls of owning a retail space.

(Can you spot the message?)

Maybe soon I'll post the finished art; I'm not sure if it delivered on the potential of the study.

That's why I love sketches and studies. So much promise! So much life!

Jim Borgman knows this. The former editorial cartoonist is the illustrator for the Zits comic strip. The first throw-away panel on the Sunday strip always contains a pencil sketch of a scene from the body of the story. Our newspaper luxuriates in publishing the throw-away panels instead of lopping them to make space for other comics.

The same for Disney art books. I looooooove the development sketches for animated characters, so lively, so … animated! By comparison the production stills from the finished animation are so … dead and still.

Here's to our potential!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

In a blue moon

A quick paint sketch of our view across the lake, cloud forming a creature before the moon.
Never has a restroom light seemed so inviting. We swam back toward it.
"What a coupla Boy Scouts!" is how swim buddy Doug admonished himself and me. And we are.

Old Boy Scouts, just looking for a place to swim under the full moon — a blue moon, not to return for two more years — in our home water. Which we did Tuesday, but not without prickles.

Because I mistook Doug's swim proposal for the September full moon, I neglected to invite any other usual suspects like the last time.

Last time, we swam at Folsom Lake, but a swim there now would require a 500 yard downhill hike across a spooky moonscape (is that ironic?) to very low, too-warm water. We went to Lake Natoma instead.

Of the three entrances to Lake Natoma, only the lower lake has parking just outside park boundaries. We pulled into the ride-share lot (with my wife Nancy and daughter Maura to join in the adventure and watch over us) to find the park gates still open, long after sunset. Hmmm.

The blue moon — also called the green corn moon, the full red moon and my favorite, the full sturgeon moon — was no moon at all, barely a smudge behind the flat sheet of dark cloud. Already this swim has a bad moon rising.

Doug ran back to his car to get his little blinking diver's light to attach to his swim goggles for the night swim. The rest of us continued into the park, where a couple of vehicles with their lights on remained. We had expected everything empty, dark and locked down. One vehicle turned away onto the lane that separates the main parking lots. The other one headed toward us.

Sure enough, a park ranger. We glowed in the motion-sensor lights of the restrooms we had just passed.

"The parking is off limits to vehicles and pedestrians now," said the ranger through her passenger window.

The parking? Do you mean the park? As pedestrians, we are not really parking. I played stupid.

"So … we can't walk in then?"

"No," said the ranger, repeating her statement. The parking is off limits.

It was like the Second Amendment, so strangely constructed I could interpret it to my favor if need be. You know, just in case I got hauled into court for swimming the lake. Your honor, I would say, I was not technically parking, so I was OK.

Doug jogged back through the shadows with his diver's blinker and escaped the ranger's notice. We walked back out, checked the ride-share parking lot, noticed the park gates finally closed … and went back into the park.

By then we imagined eyes on us — of the ranger parked somewhere out in the shadows, scanning with binoculars … of night patrol (that probably doesn't exist) at the amber-lit aquatic center across the inlet at the lower lake … of undercover rangers still at large in the park, or across the lake on the bike trail, nabbing trespassers.

"We better go stealth," said Doug. We wore our blinkies but kept them off. All the glow sticks, already activated, remained suppressed in Maura's plastic grocery bag. Nancy and Maura sat in the shadows as Doug and I slipped into the water — just about where a young man had drowned late in the evening a month before.

Even without the full moon, lower Natoma is not dark. Hazel Avenue is an overpass lifting over the dam, lit on each side by the amber sodium lights. A Chevron™® station and a McDonalds®© bloom white across the avenue from the park entrance. The city of Folsom glows to the east. The spire of the Mormon Temple lights up like a Christmas tree above the oak forest.

We were disappointed.

The water, though, was dark but for the bubbles of our wake. Doug designated 100 strokes to get out of the inlet and get our bearing, then we picked a saddle in the hills across the lake and swam toward it 200 strokes at a time. Doug cut his speed — it had to have killed him! — to stay near my side so searching for each other wouldn't be difficult. I counted strokes, trying to keep my mind off the giant white prehistoric sturgeons that don't even exist in the lake.

Two-hundred strokes, stop. Two-hundred strokes, stop. We were across, standing on the slippery rocks. The hillside behind us radiated softly.

Doug and me, post swim. Maura photo
As familiar as we are with the lake, we were still uncertain of landmarks in the uncertain light. The moon drifted out of the clouds, which formed a giant hand, then a lurching creature. Across the lake, the amber light of a restroom above the beach became our Polaris. We started across on 200-stroke beads. A bicyclist on the trail behind us with a powerful searchlight swept the beam up the hill, then across the lake, over our heads. Park ranger, you think? Nah, just someone on his bike, checking for skunks, I bet.

"Hear that?" Doug said on our stop, midway across the lake. Crisp, like radio chatter, people talking, somewhere on the water, invisible.

"There!" I said, pointing to the two lights on an eastern ridge which I suddenly transformed into the double-hulled chase boat from the aquatic center, bearing down on us. "Let's get to shore!"

"No, wait," said Doug. The lights, of course, never moved, remaining streetlights somewhere in the distance. The voices, though, drew nearer. Finally we saw the moving dark shadow across more dark shadows. A couple in a kayak, headed for shore. We let them pass, swimming breaststroke for a while before resuming our freestyle.

Nancy and Maura reported the lake alive with people, even though none of us was supposed to be there. Two kayaks slipped into the inlet and took out somewhere in the darkness; we saw the paddlers later in the ride-share lot, tying their boats to their car. A standup paddler carried her board out of the water and passed Nancy and Maura, who were lying on the beach to avoid detection. Nancy devised alibis in case a ranger found them.

The full-moon swim was a nice change, because swimming lately has felt like a chore. Though I have not swum open water long, it's long enough to know I go through these periods of malaise, and they pass. I can't help wonder about their source, though.

I wonder if it's the notorious and creative swims I've been reading about lately. This is the season for them. I wonder if psychologically I'm making myself victim of their herculean successes.

Daily, and sometimes multiple times daily, swimmers are crossing the English Channel. One woman yesterday, Wendy Trehiou from the Island of Jersey, swam across the channel and back again. It took her 39 hours of continuous swimming.

Not only that:
  • A 20-year-old kid named Owen O'Keefe just swam 37 miles down the River Blackwater in County Cork in the south of Ireland — that's shortly after he swam 41 miles around the island of Jersey.
  • Gábor Mólnar, a Hungarian living in Ireland, just swam 30 miles down the River Koros in his native country.
  • A Utah native, Gordon Gridley, completed the Catalina Channel crossing of about 20 miles.
  • Two English swimmers, Kate Robarts and Zoe Sadler, just completed double crossings, 21 miles, of Lake Windermere, England's longest lake.
  • An team of 40 swimmers from Russia, Ireland, South Africa, Italy, the United States, Latvia, Estonia, Chile, Poland, England, Argentina and Argentina last week completed a five-day, 60-mile swim across the Bering Strait between the United States and Russia, in 41-degree water. 
  • The same week, Nejib Belhidi completed his 2.4-mile swim between Little Diomede and Big Diomede islands in the Bering Sea.
  • A tight group of Orange County swimmers recently attempted swimming around 27 piers in 24 hours, from Santa Barbara to San Diego counties. In the end, only one of the 14 was able to complete all 27, and it took longer than planned. Still.
  • A team from the Bay Area-based Night Train Swimmers today embarked on a 228-mile relay swim from Point Concepcion to San Diego, hoping to set a new record for distance relay.
That's an incomplete list. Almost all the swimmers are raising money for charity.

In our night swim, I think of Gridley telling his support crew not to tell him how far he had swim or how close he was to his goal. "I just want to put my face in the water and swim," he said.

Here I am, in this short "pootle," as some of my virtual swim friends call it, struggling along for a mile and a half or so, out of rhythm, out of breath, wanting to know when I can stop, finding their feats beyond imagination. I can manage a mere fraction of what they accomplish.

And yet, I think, the bubbles seeming to fluoresce beneath me as I swim in darkness, maybe there's some more I can do. Maybe farther, maybe better, maybe for someone else's sake.

What's next?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Squirrel brain

Possible answers include:
  • After a squirrel-free childhood, I get them in abundance now. They get into my head. Literally.
  • Blue and green pastels were all I could find … or all I was willing to get up for at the time. Wait … here's a chunk of purple down by my chair leg. And what's that down along the baseboard — some yellow! And some white! Gonna hafta get up for the black, though …
  • To see if I could draw something from memory.
  • Pastel in one hand, new textured paper in the other, it's what I thought of to draw.
  • I don't know.
  • Why not?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Worst logo ever, Tammy Faye Bakker division

Design, why must you bedevil me so?

Day after day, for example, I passed a Toyota®© truck bearing this sticker on its back window:

Day after day I walked away, fuzz-brained, mulling. What is it? What does it mean?

A strange dancing figure, lobster claws for arms? Or maybe cartoon can openers? Flames? A burning man for Burning Man? A monster? Where's its head? Are the can openers heads? And what's that appendage looking thingie poking out of its … belly thingie?

Mull mull mull.

Then one day recently I stepped closer and finally saw — it took me a while, mind — there, in the interior edge of the thick meandering line, the delicate head of a deer.

It's supposed to be the head of an antlered buck. Get it?

Well, I didn't.

Logos aren't supposed to do that, make you work so hard to get their meaning.

Or maybe they are. Some logos anyway. I come across more and more logos these days whose meaning is covertly universal: This is not for you. (You are old.) Go away.
(During high school, our son often wore T-shirts with the Volcom©™ logo:
(Volcom™™ — motto "Youth Against Establishment" — is a maker of "youth-oriented products," namely apparel for skateboarders and snowboarders and surfers. Our son is neither. He wore the shirts, no different from other T-shirts except for the Volcom©® so-called "stone" logo, which means nothing as far as I have been able to figure. Which means he wore the shirt for the sake of the clip-art logo, which stands for, "This is our logo."

(Once in high school our son engaged in a classroom debate over whether students at the school should wear uniforms. He wore them in elementary school and didn't like them. I couldn't help noting the irony that he, adorned like so many others in longish hair, a Volcom®© or Element™© T-shirt, baggy shorts, oversized barely-tied shoes — the embodiment of Jeremy in the comic strip Zits — denounced the wearing of uniforms.

(We are unique in our sameness! could be the rally cry.

(But I digress.)
Back to the buck: A coupla quick tappety-taps on the keyboard and I learn from the Interwebs that this is a mark for the Browning Arms Company®©. I don't know much, but I have heard of a Browning©™ rifle.

With the Browning™® name, the mark makes sense:


It's called the Browning®™ Buckmark, and it's the oddest feat of graphic gymnastics I've ever seen.

It's also the victim of the designer's excess. If some is good, more is better, which is what I imagine Tammy Faye Bakker thought at some point in the evolutionary process of applying her makeup.

What was for a brief shining moment an interesting dance of positive and negative space with the Buckmark turned into a dancing lobster-claw figure.

Browning™® offers much more backstory than I usually find for a logo's development. Its art director, Don Bailey, designed the mark in 1977 and Browning®™ deployed it starting in 1978.

The Buckmark™© before it got messed with.
At first the line forming the mark was not as thick. Besides the outline of the deer created by the inner edge of the line (negative space), the upper and outer edge formed the formidable but delicate taper of the buck's antlers (positive space). You can see it on the cover of Browning's™© price list, left.

Kinda cool, though I'm not sure what the outer line of the buck's head represents. It sort of vaguely follows the interior line. Maybe the thickness makes more masculine the feminine line. Maybe it's supposed to be two deer profiled side by side. Maybe. Mull mull mull.

Before the ink could dry in 1978, Bailey tweaked the logo further, thickening and simplifying the line. The buck's ear shape tilted up and fused with the antlers, and the antlers swelled into the lobster claw/can opener shape, swallowing the organic taper.

If some is good, more is better. Bleh.

The window sticker, which I've only begun to notice even though the mark has been around 35 years, is a copy of a copy of a diecut of a copy. The taut curved lines have grown warts, the bumps have gotten bumpier, unleashing the can-opener dancer. You can get the stickers in metallic, pink, camouflage and Stars and Stripes.

Ultimately, of course, who cares what I think? Certainly not the people with the Buckmark stickers on their windows — or even the tattoos on their triceps.

The logo has served its cunning purpose, getting this nattering nabob to lavish more attention on it than if I owned a Browning™© weapon.

Geez, I am old.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Morning breath

(Or, my continuing love affair with Prismacolor™© pencils …)

Just a little early-week morsel, an illustration for a magazine story warning home brewers how to avoid making bad beers.

I yanked out my inner child on this one, remembering the textbook illustrations of our tongues and how each section specializes in tasting sweet or salty or savory or Cheetos™®.

I let the uvula way back there be the arbiter of taste.

'Tis another project which I drew with Prismacolor®© and brush and ink, photocopied onto stiff art paper and watercolored, the liquid color resisting the black toner.

The little call-outs were drawn and painted separately, reduced and copied on art paper, and painted, cut out and pasted on. Old school —ish.


Thursday, August 8, 2013

how do i love facebook©™®? last-minute addendum

"Gather!" Nejib Belhedi told summer campers at the Sacramento State Aquatic Center.
And they did; some called him "swimmer guy," but I'm not sure they know who he is.
The world grows smaller …

Yesterday Nejib Belhedi kissed me solemnly on both cheeks, bear-hugging me as tight as he could, given we were bobbing in 25 feet of water in Lake Natoma.

He thanked me for my help and swam back to shore. I wished him safe travels and continued swimming upstream.

By today he should be flying to Nome, Alaska, preparing to swim the 2.4 miles between Little Diomede (the United States) and Big Diomede (Russia) islands in the Bering Strait. The water should be about 40 degrees, says Steven Breiter, handling his publicity.

With logistics worked out, Nejib should make the swim sometime next week.

(Lynne Cox, famous for her extreme endurance swims, made this route in 1987; Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev credited her swim, and lengthy delicate negotiations to make it possible, for easing U.S.-Soviet tensions leading to glasnost.)

Nejib Belhedi is a world wonder whom I wouldn't have known without facebook™©, specifically the group page in which swimmers around the world describe their swims that day. Nejib posts early and often, ebullient descriptions of swims from far away, accompanied by many many photos. And many many exclamation points!!!

I don't always understand what's going on in the photos, partly because his posts appear to have been translated from French or Arabic and the result is quaintly peculiar to me. His joy, though, is clear. So is his mission; peace.

Fox 40 reporter Alisa Becerra gets ready to interview Nejib Belhedi at Lake
Natoma. Expedition manager Carol Breiter (right) stands by for questions.
"The world is so noisy," Nejib told a reporter from Fox 40 News in Sacramento, covering his story yesterday morning. "We don't hear these kinds of voices. It's rare to hear these kinds of voices."

Nejib plans to bring the voices and words and pictures from children in his native Tunisia in North Africa, on the Mediterranean Sea, to the children of the Bering Sea. Tunisia is the tragic but fiery birthplace for the so-called Arab Spring.
This is one of several swims Nejib has made to wage peace and to encourage Tunisian children to take to the sea.

In 2011 he swam the Tunisian coastline, 1,400 kilometers, stage by stage, for peace and encouragement. The World Open Water Swimming Association named his feat that year's Performance of the Year.

Nejib swam the English Channel in 1993 in 16 hours and 35 minutes on the highest tide of the year, 6.75 meters. The Belhedi Award now goes to the fastest English Channel crossing on the highest tide. (Information from a wiki site called Open Water Pedia.)

Cindi Dulgar, associate director of the Sac State Aquatic Center, pilots
The Fox 40 TV crew alongside Nejib on his swim.
Carol Breiter photo.
All this I learned last week — including that he's a retired lieutenant colonel in the Tunisian army — when I saw yet another video of Nejib swimming.

Except in this one the background looked weirdly familiar.

The narrator introduced Nejib, announced the date June 30 and said, "His course is going to take him up the lake, Lake Natoma in Sacramento, California." The narrator noted Nejib's planned 4,400-meter swim that day.

"wait a minute," I posted on the group page. "you swam lake natoma and i missed the chance to meet you?!"

Soon Carol Breiter called me to say Nejib is still in the neighborhood, and would I like to meet him? She's the general manager of Nejib's Bering Strait expedition, and a swimmer and English Channel coach from Sacramento.

(I'm guessing the video narrator was her husband Steven, the publicity and logistics manager for this trek. I'm also guessing he misspoke, meaning July 30. I forgot to ask him yesterday.)

After a couple of attempts — Nejib was on the road with his team the last week, swimming in Lake Tahoe and then Aquatic Park in San Francisco — I finally got to meet him yesterday.

Nejib gets ready to jump in at Nimbus Flat after an interview.
"Careful," says Carol. "He'll get you to help out. He has that way."

Whatever he's got, he should bottle and sell it. 

"Gather!" he calls to children who have arrived for day camp at the aquatic center. Children run to him; I don't know whether someone has told them who he is. They pose for a photo. 

He gestures and hugs and laughs and approaches perfect strangers with great glee, revealing how reserved we tend to be in this part of the world.
I have commented briefly on his posts before, and he has called me his dear friend since. With a great hug he greeted me again this way, his great walrus mustache rising above a big smile.

"Come, we are together in this now," he said.

Soon, sure enough, I was helping hold up a backdrop while the news reporter did a live tease for the lengthier broadcast later. Then I was in the stern of a canoe, paddling alongside Nejib on a swim to demonstrate a mid-swim feeding for the TV crew. Nejib's neoprene cap bore the red crescent and star of the Tunisian flag.

Carol and Steven switched places in the canoe to keep piloting Nejib, while Cindi Dulgar of the aquatic center took me back on her boat with the TV crew.

Then I joined my swim buddy Doug for a swim of Burroughs Island, about 1.3 miles round trip.

Nejib and his crew were returning on our way out. I veered over to say goodbye.

"Come, I kiss you," said Nejib. I looked up at Carol and Steven, not sure what I heard.

"It's the custom," said Carol. "Go with it."

Peace will come by people reaching out, I think, by meeting others more than halfway. Godspeed, Nejib. 

Carol Breiter photo

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The elephant in the room

The spittin' image of old Sam …
I am bewhiskered. Temporarily hirsute.

I know: The shock! Sit down.

You who know me personally believed facial hair impossible. You who've seen me, knowing that, go into shock and fall to the floor when no chairs are provided.
My dad embraced the barbate zeitgeist of every age he lived. Could I make a movie of the snapshot-choked scrapbooks, you'd see his sideburns fall and rise and fall again, his mustache widen and take wing, his jawline shine, then grow dark, then gray, then bare again before settling into a steady grizzle.

All because he could.

Such a gift skipped a generation, and I've been fine with that. At best, my hair sprouted into a barren archipelago on my face. Maybe it was a secret treasure map, like the tattoo on the mysterious child in Waterworld. But we'll never know.
S. Brannan, the very picture of fun!
My hat covers the fact I can't match his hair.

Or will we?

Because I just had to go and be Sam Brannan on the Old Sacramento Underground Tours.

Unlike Michael Kearney, the Irish clerk/shirker/seanchaí/Everyman I portray, Brannan was real — the brutish visionary who sparked the California Gold Rush.

(I started feeling sorry for Brannan because few people on tour, I discovered, had ever heard of the guy. His story is so peculiar, he makes J.R. Ewing look like a Cub Scout. But his story — bringing San Francisco and Sacramento into being, and becoming the state's first millionaire while stepping on all the little people —  is going untold.)

As such, Brannan left behind all manner of parlor portraits, all of which showed his muttonchops trimmed "in the imperial style," including a mouche (though, really, soul patch is a vast improvement).

At first I faked the facial hair, assuming my own deficiencies. From a novelty shop in Old Sacramento I bought a theater beard, a small bottle of spirit gum and another of gum remover. The beard matched my peppery hair and didn't cost too much, so I was buoyant.

After an hour or so of splitting the beard, then cutting and fitting and cutting and fitting and cutting and fitting some more, I fashioned two muttonchops with plenty left over for soul patches of different sizes. Who knows? Some days Sam might feel kickier than other days.

Michael Sean Aloysius Finbarr Kearney, at your service.
A fake bloke made a bit less so.
As a new character, Brannan vexed me, requiring new facts and a new fake dialect. He was born in Saco, Maine, and spent his teen years in Ohio, and I make him sound a bit like Hal Holbrook as the stage manager in Our Town

(Fast aside: I managed to make a man on tour from Scarborough, Maine, believe I was a fellow Mainer. So there!)

The fake beard didn't help. Just the thought of gluing and placing it just right made me sweat, and required at least 30 more minutes than Michael Kearney did to get in costume.

Properly and oh, so carefully applied, the fake beard managed to look like … a fake beard.

Fake beards are perfect if you are:
  1.  On a stage, 55 feet from the nearest theater patron;
  2.  20 feet away from a makeup artist who will paste you back together;
  3.  In the company of people who don't believe your beard is real, any more than they believe you are the person you're playing on the stage, but accept the prop and the conceit that we're all "pretending."
Fake beards are far from perfect if you're hoping visitors, standing a hot breath from you, will believe your bristles are authentic, even as temperatures approaching 100 work to part you from your fakery, revealing buffoonery.

Swimmer Shawn sez "Owie!"
It was in front of high schoolers in close quarters, my beard — which I could feel at every moment — curling away from my jaws like the wings of pigeons, that I decided to stop faking it.

Also the daily baths in professional-grade acetone (yes, I bought a bigger bottle of remover) to wash away the crusted boogery spirit gum had reduced the beard to mesh and a few bristles. It looked like I had glued patches of a possum-tested screen door to my face.

Maybe — just maybe! — I could grow my own!

After three weeks of not shaving, I carved around the barely longer whiskers in the shape of muttonchops. I finally learned to stop shaving under my lip so the soul patch would grow.

It's taken three months, but now I have long whiskers that drape white and gray (with one odd patch of black) over my jawline. After a careful shave around their shape, ironically, the mutton chops carry out the look of a fake beard, bristles jutting sharply out of my face.

But I don't feel them, except for the moments when I twirl them in my fingers and stare at the ceiling, faking pensiveness. Familiar people unfamiliar with my new face often look at me funny, and this time it's for the weird beard.

The beard is not growing any fuller. New follicles are not springing out between the whiskers I already have. It is a spare forest of bare aspen trees separated by a hill of chin. What meager volume derives from the length of the whiskers, looking for somewhere to go and banging into one another.

My wife hates the look (though instead she says she wishes I'd just trim the hairs), which means it won't last long. Maybe after the tour season winds down after Halloween, it'll go.

The good news is that the whiskers work well for Michael Kearney too. 

In fact, it's the cheapest manifestation of a mid-life crisis I can imagine.
Actual un-retouched,

(Fast aside: The Mulcahy family, real Irish people from County Cork who brought Dave to swim with me last month in Lake Natoma, made gentle fun of my Irish accent when I explained the mutton chops are not my usual mien. In my defense, I have made Americans who have been to the town I say I'm from — Kilfenora in County Clare — believe I really came from there. And almost made them believe I'm 185 years old.)

The bad news is two-fold. For one, I must shave more often, and more carefully, two conditions to which I am unaccustomed.

Two — and I've yet to figure out the mechanics of it — the bristles wear abrasions on my chest as I swim. I'm either doing something right or very very wrong. When the rest of my body somehow manages to feel fluid on a swim, it's a bummer when my chest stings from a new worn spot.

Make that three-fold — so far, no discernible treasure map.  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

how do i love facebook™®? let me count the way

From Dave Mulcahy, all the way from Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland!
Photo taken far from there, calm Lake Natoma, Sacramento County,
California, United States of America.
For all its faults — of which we need blame ourselves; it's only the monolithic messenger, after all — facebook™© is wonderful for one reason:

It turns my world into one well-knit neighborhood of swimmers.

The virtual neighborhood became real last month. More on that in a bit.

I belong to a facebook®© group with one simple purpose — to share each member's swim that day.

(Technically, the page asks members to tell whether they swam that day, but thank goodness few are so terse.)

My daily routine includes checking the page to learn the latest.

A small number of posts are lists of pool sets (distance, number of repetitions, type of stroke or kick, intervals between repetitions, target time, etc.) Those reports look something like this:
200 Choice Swim
200 Pull
200 Choice Swim
200 Kick
6x50 drill w/:15 rest (1 Sailboat/1 Catch-up/1 Fist)
1 x 100/200/300/300/200/100 @ 2:00 per 100 (First 100 is always FAST!, pull second half of ladder)
300 w/fins (50 Kick/100 swim, repeat)
*2600 total*
I don't really understand what they mean, but I "like" them anyway, to acknowledge "Hey, that's your thing and right on! Swimming is swimming®."

"Swimming is swimming®™" is a registered trademark of the aforementioned facebook™© page. All rights reserved.

Most posts, though, describe vividly swims from across the globe, no matter the water. On a given day, the group will share about a summer swim in the now-frigid, now-warm waters of Lake Ontario … the winter threshing of surf off New South Wales, Australia … another tarn (mountain lake) "bagged" in the Scottish Highlands … and an exploratory swim of St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Fla. as part of the fight to save it.

We read reports of swims in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, England, Ireland, Greece, South Africa, American Samoa, New Zealand, Russia, Tunisia … Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Washington, Utah, Florida, Hawaii, and up and down California. Pool, lake, river, ocean and sea.

Every once in a while, the group talks of swim caps.
Here's one of my proposals. dyst? is the acronym,
"Did you swim today?"
That's a woefully incomplete list. I left out Zane Hodge, for example, an English instructor in Greenwood, Miss., who swims in swarms of catfish for his open water experience, then raises diabetes research money each year by swimming 14-plus miles of what appears to be an ancient bend of the Mississippi River.

Group members are treated to photos of storybook cottages in England along little smooth green rivers in which swimmers splash with their orange "butt buoys" floating along behind … the hyper-real Technicolor®™ of sharks and fiddler rays and creatures from a Ridley Scott movie swimming beneath swimmers off Manly Beach near Sydney … garibaldis (California's state fish) and tide pool denizens just below the daily swimmers off Laguna Beach in Southern California … and swimmers laughing above the froth with Coney Island swirling and whirring behind them.

A doctor in San Diego swims the ocean at 5 a.m. and reports the sea life he finally can see when the sun rises.

No fewer than 70 swimmers (and usually about 200) meet each morning at Manly Beach in neon pink gear under the rubric Bold & Beautiful. The Laguna Beach crowd, calling themselves the Oak Streakers, make sure to dress appropriately for all the big holiday swims and festoon themselves with glow sticks and blinking lights for full-moon swims.

Almost left out the Seabrook Seals of Dorset and Big Ricks Swim Team. So many to mention and this list is still so incomplete. 

We share it all each day, like sitting down at a collective kitchen table and recounting concisely our concurrent days of swimming. When a swimmer bemoans his/her loss of mojo or gets stung by jellyfish, others quickly provide advice and condolences. New swimmers get encouragement and virtual back pats. Congratulations bloom immediately when swimmers reach major goals, whether a 25-mile race or
Here's another design proposal. The discussion on this topic
has gone dormant, as it does from time to time …
their first mile, whether by a globally renowned open water swimmer or a schmo like me.

Our communication is instantaneous, another thing I like about facebook™©®.

We also commiserate with one another. A swimmer named Jonathan Joyce, a Web entrepreneur whose energy and love of life shone through the tiny windows of facebook©® posts, died on a swim in June. An English Channel swimmer named Susan Taylor died last month in her attempt. Swimmers on the group page mourned their loss. Many wrote the swimmers' names on their arms and photographed their arms, posting the pictures on the page.

Swimmer and St. Johns River advocate Jim Alabiso even created another group page, celebrating "vicarious swimming" in which swimmers write others' names on their arms, for various reasons, and celebrate them on their swims. 

All these reports send me to Google's map function, to find their swimming holes, and someday to go there. Places named Sonning on Thames, Buttermere, Wastwater (though I proposed changing that name), Allerthorpe, Lac Memphremagog, Loch Lomond.

Great Britain's pools are often called lidos (pronounced Lie-dohs, I believe), where many of the posters swim. I found it funny that one British swimmer demurred at my calling tow floats "butt buoys" when she and others find it perfectly unfunny to call one of their swimming pools Tooting Bec Lido.

Their reports also send me to slang dictionaries to learn that brekkies is breakfast and cossies are swimwear in Great Britain, and "knackered" is bad and "I'm gutted" is about the worst one can feel, probably from missing a swim. Several of the British declare their swims "cheeky."

We have our own slang this side of the pond. More and more posters are describing their swims as "pootles," easy and un-exercise-like.

I add my almost-daily report from Lake Natoma and try to describe the something new that each day's swim brings, and I do so in the spirit of self-deprecating humor most of the swimmers use.

(We forgive the swimmers who report, "Not today (did I swim), but yesterday I swam to France in 14:32." English Channel crossers earn their cheek. 'Tis the season now for the famous marathon swims, the 21-mile English and 20-something-mile Santa Barbara channels, across Lake Tahoe, and elsewhere.)

Yesterday, for example, I noted the turkey buzzards overhead, who missed their chance at getting me for leftovers. I always describe the water and list the temperature, in Fahrenheit and celsius, just in case someone besides me cares. The compendium of reports lets me know the arcing rise and fall of Lake Natoma's temperature as we swim it year 'round.

I seldom post photos, and when I do they're swim buddy Doug Bogle's. I'm terrible with cameras, and one would soon be at the bottom of the lake, joining two of my car keys, if it were left to me.

Which is why I was so surprised that two swimmers came to visit last month, based on my mini missives.

Suzie Dods, known well in the open water community for competing in some of the longest races held, and the one who led me on my first swim of Aquatic Park in San Francisco, came over with a friend to swim the chilly upper part of the lake. We wandered upstream against the current, past three bridges, feeling tiny amid the giant granite boulders through which the water coursed.

Then a man named Dave Mulcahy, from County Cork in the south of Ireland, let me know he'd be traveling to California and would like to join me at Natoma. I've come to know the Irish as fiercely passionate about open-water swimming, in some of the most challenging conditions.

OK, let me know when you're in town, I wrote back. See you when I see you. Out of sight, out of mind. I didn't really think it would happen.

But after a long hot day of work three weeks ago, resolving to skip my swim for the day, I got home to a text message.

I'm in town, Dave said in the message. Are you still up for a swim?

Someone really came all the way from Ireland to swim with me! I grabbed my stuff and headed out, finally finding Dave and his family in the labyrinth of roads at upper Natoma.

Dave's family had planned a trip from San Francisco south to visit relatives, and carved out a side trip to see the lake I described.

But almost everything in Ireland is a three-hour drive away at most, said Dave's wife, Brigid, so it was a culture shock to realize how far from San Francisco their side trip would take them. But they came anyway, even got lodging nearby.

After a tour of upper Natoma, our zigzagging courses crossing each under under the new bridge and back, Dave pronounced the swim "lovely."

Think of it: A swimmer with whom I share words about a shared love. And from those few words, half a world away, we came together. To swim.

Dave presented me with a hat from his swim club, which I'm wearing in the picture. A perfect host would have worn the hat on the swim, but I am a perfect oaf instead. I wore it next day and posted the picture.

Dave and his family made their way down the coast, Dave to swim in all the places I have yet to get to — and I live here! This week I saw another post from Dave swimming near his Fermoy home, and noted his safe journey back. I have a new urgency to make it to Ireland.

Today, as always, I check the world's swims by the world's swimmers. Their joy is best captured by this post, from a swimmer in England who goes by Plum Duff:
"A delicious dawn dip in a blissful French river. Soft water, stillness, birdsong, raindrops; followed by a simple riverbank breakfast eaten to the sight of a pair of kingfishers and their reflections rolling and tumbling across the mercurial surface of the water.

It is fair to say that not all swims are created equal. This was one of the finest."
Swim on!