Thursday, February 27, 2014

'Til it's gone

I present this design class typography assignment mostly
to pine for the day when color photocopying was a special
service at Kinko's™®, requiring one to stand in a line to
order it from a person standing behind a counter. One had to
hope that the staff beyond the counter wasn't busy producing
some family reunion memory book (comb-bound, 125 copies,
please!) and could produce your color copy within the hour.

I lucked out when I asked this to be photocopied, oh so long
ago. The counterperson could get to it right away. Fifteen
minutes later she came back with the result: The yellow was
blue, the red purple and the black a green slime.

"Is something wrong?" The counterperson had the oblivious
courage to ask. Bottom line: It was a color copy … just not
the colors I wanted.

"Anything else?" the counterperson asked. I miss those days.
Just two photocopy machines remain at my neighborhood Kinko's™®©.

Just like the good old bad days.

It's not Kinko's©™ anymore, but everyone still calls it that. No one calls it FedEx Office®™.

 "I'm going to FedEx Office™®." Who says that? You'd rightly reply, "Whaddya mean, your office! Where are you going, really?! Oh, Kinko's®©! All right."

FedEx©™ bought Kinko's™© stores 10 years ago this month, and turned them into all-in-one shipping centers and office supply boutiques and self-serve computer centers and specialty low-end/high-volume printers.

And if you're really, really patient, you can still get photocopies there.

Really, really … really patient.

The line of people last week tipped me off to the cataclysmic shift.

We stood with our documents in hand, or in manila folders under our arms, or jammed in our purses.

One of the two copiers hummed and burped, churning copy after copy for a man who appeared to be compiling some kind of family history for wide distribution. I could see pages with color photos and another with a hand-drawn family tree, piles neatly arranged on the counter opposite the copier. That's where the big paper cutter is, and at the moment nobody wants to cut paper, so he's safe.

The man churns out a certain number of copies of each page in his master document, then sets the pile on the counter, eventually to collate them.

At the other copier a couple has begun copying each piece of paper from a folder that has exceeded its utility as a folder and must rely on the potential energy of several rubber bands for structural support. The rubber bands are balled up on a little table next to the folder, now flung open like exhausted wings at rest, the papers of all sizes quivering atop a pile.

They are documents for taxes, or for the transaction of some life-altering good like a house, or medical records in a dispute over payment. The quivering pile dwindles glacially. Each time the copier lid rises and falls. Each time the couple discuss and push buttons. Each time is a discussion, each time a succession of buttons. Each paper must be copied.

So it goes. So we wait.

I do not fault them. They need copies. I need copies. They're here first. Today I can wait.

First-world problems.

The next person in line needs help pushing the buttons. I show her. She thanks me. Finally she is done and I can make my two photocopies and go.

Not a month ago, this matter would have been moot. A month ago, Kinko's™® was my Nirvana: Five photocopiers, enough even for the homeless man with his satchel of secret documents to record and still not put pressure on any of the other machines.

Five photocopiers, each capable of black-and-white and color — in one machine! A little machine next to each one; pop in your debit card, make your copies, retrieve your card, pop it into another machine that print out a receipt, and out the door you go. You don't have to talk with anyone, ask anyone for help, even though the staff at my Kinko's®™ is awfully nice.

It was perfect.

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone, Joni Mitchell told me.

Now the usefulness of Kinko's®™ is fading, regressing to the days when I first needed the little shop on the corner. And boy, did I need it. Standing in the line last week, I reflected on how important it has been to my work for the last 25 years.

Kinko's©™® was my "Cheers," except without the greeting and beer; the closest I got from the staff was, "Back already?!" I took it as welcome, whether I was in the shop early in the morning or late at night, which I often was.

If I wasn't making multiple collated copies for my students when I taught, I was harnessing Kinko's©™ machines as art tools. Before scanning, I would make copies and carefully cut and paste (with actual glue) to create illustration effects. Or I'd run thick art paper through a special side door on the machine, to copy an illustration over which I could paint watercolor. I knew the special door, knew the sequence of buttons that would produce the copy without jamming the machines. I knew where to get the extra paper and reload the machines without staff help.

Before I had a scanner, I would use the Kinko's™® computers. Each store had one Mac™® beside the bank PCs, so I had little trouble operating them. When one store's Mac©™ was broken, I would race to the next store. I know where all the stores are in Sacramento and Placer counties, because some days I'd have to hit three just to finish one job.

A few years ago the Macs™© disappeared, and I had to learn the PC language. Then I got a scanner and didn't need Kinko's™® for that anymore. I don't use any of the many services FedEx Office™® provides, not even its shipping. And I don't need photocopies as much as I used to.

But I still need them, and my little multi-purpose printer in my office can't do the job. But now Kinko's®™ is slowly closing that down. A display rack of packing tubes and transparent tape sits where one of the missing photocopiers sat in a corner. A large-format printer spans the space that two other machines occupied. I guess what few documents spit out of that printer — blueprints for a harried general contractor, say — more than compensates the loss of photocopy customers.

It's only a short while before one photocopier remains and the line gets longer; one can break down and we'd be in that mire in no time.

I imagine FedEx Office™® will turn the single remaining photocopier into a positive, using its calculated profit-optimizing gesture to commemorate the early days, when a guy named Paul Orfalea created Kinko's™® in 1970 out of a tiny shop space near the University of California, Santa Barbara. The entrepreneurial apocrypha follows that the place was so small, Orfalea had to step outside to give a customer room to use his one photocopy machine.

I will still need photocopies. I will stand in line for the remaining photocopier, until that one is gone too.

Then I don't know what I'll do.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Step by step

  1. Draw a picture in pencil, in this case for a story on insurance and the result of not having enough.
  2. Photocopy it onto standard multipurpose paper, robin's egg blue.
  3. With a fine but junky brush, paint bleach where you want the blue color to … well, bleach, to create highlights.
  4. Scan the drawing into Adobe™® Illustrator.
  5. Create a high-falutin' gradient mesh to darken the blue in the upper right and lower left corners.
  6. Throw it over to Photoshop©®. Sweat the damning mystery that is Photoshop™©. Breathe. Relax.
  7. Add some yellow to the white highlights, suggesting spotlights on our upset heroine.
  8. Futz with the border.

Et voilà! A multimedia work, suitable for framing.

If ya gotta crooked frame on you.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A logo surfaces

This bitty one kept popping up.

Persistent. Prankish — she made as if to disappear for good, even stayed away for the longest time, until suddenly arising in another spot.

Whatcha doing? she asked, or seemed to. Can I play? Can I, huh? Huh?

I tried to ignore her. This was serious business, designing the artwork that would go on the swim caps for the 24-hour Swim Relay in San Francisco's Aquatic Park. I was swimming in it, and director Suzie Dods asked me to come up with something.

Artist at work. Do not disturb. No fun allowed.

I made lists (sometimes the same list redone in different ink and decaying penmanship), checked them thrice. What was legible became pegs on which to hook ideas.

The solution had to say, "This is the first attempt of the craziest damn swim in one of the most beautiful places on the planet!"

It all but bellowed "TIME and SPACE and NOVELTY!" like few others could.

Would I hear it?

Regardless, the solution had to be different, and swimming is a prickly client. Photography may do it justice, but graphic design often fails. Swimming is all slash of arm and splash of water and sliver of rubber-swathed head. Most it it happens out of sight.

Swim logos, as a result, often look like the ransacking of traffic safety signs: Round head, zig-zag line for an arm, two or three wavy lines for water — presto! Logo.

The swimmers in these logos by necessity display bad form — for freestyle anyway, they're almost vertical — to show the head and sometimes facial expression or features.

This event called for something different. Now, to work.

First, time: That's the marrow of this shindig, a 24-hour grind, day passing into night and back again, the feel of it. How to convey it? The movement of sun and moon, an ever-widening whirl? A watch? A Dali watch? Literally the words "24 hours?"

All of the ideas sketched, considered, set aside.

Now, place: A marvel to us outsiders, San Francisco is just as much a jewel to its swimming locals. The City must glimmer in the art.

Next, novelty: Since Herb Caen, late great columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, called The City Baghdad by the Bay, I tried that for a bit, dipping into visual history and mythology to make visual links to the sophisticated city The City is.

Leander, swimming across the Hellespont each night to be with his lover Hero. Assyrian bas-relief, swimmers prostrate and flailing, fully clothed and behatted, as if seen from under water.

So began a spate of sketchy sketches, suggesting the rough hew of the ancient artist. Swimmers formed a circle, suggesting the passage of time and completion of laps.

Nah, I decided, too esoteric. Too far away from crazy damn swim, the unforgettable place.

I was going around in my own circles on this, getting nowhere.

Then look who showed up! The wee sea lion, wanting to play. Up she rose, I realize, from my subconscious.

The sea lion suddenly answered everything for me, time and place and novelty. It's wild, like this swim, and welcoming (not that I'd like to cross a cross one). Sea lions dwell on San Francisco's piers and roam Aquatic Park.

I saw one from afar on my swim of the park; one day I hope to see a sea lion pop up close from the green murk of the Bay, as other swimmers tell, watch it watch me, then watch it swim away.

She became the hook for this idea. I built The City around her, the water and waves and tides.

Ultimately she had come to play with the swimmers.

The water in the final art played multiple roles, surface and volume and sky and night.

I managed to fit in Coit Tower, the TransAmerica Building (a useful landmark for swimming the homeward route that weekend), the Golden Gate Bridge, the sailing ship Balclutha tied up next to Aquatic Park — even the flag buoy known well to swimmers there.

Circles became slash and splash and sun and moon. Swirls suggested a timepiece, a stopwatch, the endlessly circling crazy damned swim — I dunno, I might have enshrined a cliché on that last bit.

On the cap, the sweeping shape is meant from a distance to suggest  horns or Hermes' wings.

At least the sea lion seems bemused.

Addendum: I reacquainted with an elementary school classmate, Jim Bock, at the 24-hour swim. He's a lively member of the South End Rowing Club now, living lifelong dreams in San Francisco. When I introduced myself by social media, he sent me a copy of a chart he had made way back in 5th grade, written on pulp lined paper. It lists the class' and teacher's birthdays. Each student and teacher recorded his/her data, and Jim somehow kept that paper all this time. He and I just happened to have signed on subsequent lines:

We were adamant about adding fractions to our ages. Even then, I notice, I was playing with a logo for my name.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Let's crunch the numbers, shall we?

Oh — they don't look good at all. Not at all.

— wait — ha! —got it upside down. So Embarrassing! — OK, here we go …

No, that doesn't help. Some of these numbers look all right, but the rest …

I've succumbed — to pride, hubris, what have you. I've fallen prey, and in desire have burned my fingers — the desire to know:

Who's reading my posts?

{Point of order: I don't know who's reading my posts, so worry not. Nor do I wanna know. Although nifty fact: Two people from the Isle of Man have read my posts (not sure how many times) or one person from the Isle of Man has read two posts, or maybe one post twice. Anyway, kudos to you and the Isle of Man for getting a separate distinction in the™© toolbox of statistics available to its users.

{I still do not know anything more about you, Isle of Man dweller(s), other than that, and would not seek any more information. Unless you dropped me a note, of course; then we could talk. I love that your coat of arms is a triskelion of legs

{But I've lost the mooring of this post, so to speak …}

This is my 326th post — you're invited to the after-party this afternoon in the lobby — and I have to admit that every time I post a post, even though I'm writing to retard the regression of my own wits,  I check the counter provides, the one that records in real time the number of views each one gets.

I'm doing so now, while you're reading. Creepy, right?

My closest equivalent is a stage mom pushing her trussed-up, gussied-up, tiara'd toddler onto the runway, then peeking from behind the curtain to see who oohs and ahhs and sniffles.

Through the course of days I'll refresh the counter, like leaving the kid out there long after the crowd has left and the lights have been doused and the crickets have come.

What's more pathetic, that fact or its revelation?

Over time I have been able to determine what topics generate the most views, and what the least.

I have not been able to determine what, if anything, to do about it.

When I first wrote a blog about my blog — a metablog! — a friend kindly sent to me the link to a site that would provide a comprehensive analysis of where and how my blog is being used. But I did not use it because I don't think it would tell me what I really wanted to know:

Did you enjoy reading it? Did you really read it, or just click on the link, quail at the wall or words, and resume your life? No judging here. I'm just curious.

Did I make you laugh or cry or retch? Sometimes you tell me, but most leave me to wonder.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? To stop writing about? Actually, the view counts tell that story.

I have gathered up all the posts and their data, and put them into groups. The bulk of my posts — comprising some of my artwork and backstory … rants about odd issues I care for … riffs on swimming and graphic design … is in the largest group. We'll just say the views for each number in the thousands and leave it at that. My ego's raw and exposed enough as it is.

Posts that got three times the average view count went into one small group (most popular). Posts with half the average views (least popular) into another. This post is about these posts. It's all very scientific.

Herewith, my executive summary, starting with the good news:

Put a logo in it: By far the most viewed post — twice as many as the next — is my declaration that the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the best logo ever.

Second most popular was about my declaration that the U.S. Air Force symbol is the best military logo.
(Awkward aside, I realize after all this time I misspelled "division" in the blog title. Even my most ardent proofreader missed that.)
Lesson learned: People really like reading about logos, I guess. Maybe it's a marriage of the visual and computer culture. The Monterey Bay Aquarium post keeps amassing view counts over time, so I picture people Googling©™ "logo" and finding the post. I wrote 56 times about logos so far, the data show.

I like logos, like looking at good and bad logos, would love to read more about how certain logos were created. Every once in a while I'll write at length about logos that enrapture or incense or baffle me.

The one declaring my allegiance to my high school's logo proved popular, as did one about some sketch-logos, really, that I did for someone's fantasy football league long ago. Even a flitting logo for the U.S. Olympics got a lot of looks.

When I trashed the old Montreal Expos© logo, viewers flocked. Ditto for the impending horror of Office Depot®™ and Office Max's™© merger creating an even worse logo, which apparently hasn't happened (the logo, anyway). Even the worst slogan ever got lookie-loos. Folks like their graphic melodrama.

Lots and lots of views, to be sure, but almost no dialogue: Even when I challenged viewers to argue with my highly subjective logo rants and raves, none did.

Get personal … but not too personal: The first I noticed the potential ripple effect of my posts — beyond the usual number of viewers — was when I wrote about my great-uncles, five of whom served on the same ship when they survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. Word of the post went beyond that first circle of viewers, apparently, to relatives, to friends of the Fahlgren brothers who served during World War II, and suddenly the viewer count soared.

The same for when I processed my feelings over the death of a popular and highly regarded high school classmate, which attracted his wide circle of friends and acquaintances … and the death of my father-in-law, drawing a breadth of family and friends.

When I wrote follow-ups for each of these posts, the added interest had died down and viewership fell to usual levels.

Personal posts aren't a given, though. The story of Nancy and me beginning our lives together attracted many viewers, but the story of meeting a half-sister for the first time a couple of years ago, not nearly so many.

Go figure.

To swim or not to swim: Records show I have written 57 times about swimming, with good results. The 24-hour swim I participated in last week grabbed viewers quickly, as did my view on Diana Nyad, who crossed 108 miles from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Fla. in a highly controversial swim.

My paean to a facebook©® page called "Did you swim today?" also attracted a great deal of viewers, many, I suspect, from the facebook®™ page.

Enough glowing and gloating. Now the bad news:

Do they know it's Christmastime?: Do not blog during the holidays, should be rule No. 1. Even if it's a heartfelt wish to any viewers out there in Viewer Land, the viewers are out there rightfully enjoying the holiday or viewing online gift sites, not my blog post. That's true year after year after year.

Even though I make it a habit to post twice a week, maybe I can lay off between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Take me out of the ballgame: Don't write about the San Francisco Giants®© (my team) either, is a fairly clear message. I wrote 36 times about the Giants in some form. Baseball is divisive (some say boring, but I don't listen to those critics), so I understand if only a subset view my Giants blogs, in bad times or good.

Although the oddest thing happened after writing about my first-ever ballgame, Giants vs. Cubs: A classmate from long ago and now far away, a physician on the opposite of the country, wrote me out of the blue about his first ballgame. So even though baseball views aren't big, they're worth the serendipitous nostalgia kick.


I figure I can:

1. Tag more — If I wanna drive traffic to the site, as the marketers say, I need to tag the hell out of each. Often I do. Sometimes I don't tag at all; sometimes I just want to release a post into the current and let it go where it will.

2. Tag each post with "logo," whether or not it's about logos. At least people will view each post, if that's really what I want.

3. Time releases for optimum viewership. I followed my son's advice and began releasing them in late morning Pacific Standard Time, rather than at the break of dawn. But finding the optimal time seems quixotic.

4. Market better. It's true this is a showcase for my artwork. It's also true I can't help writing about things. It's part chore, part organizer, part portfolio, part journal. I post a link to facebook and that's about it. Marketing remains a black science to me.
Some wags may whine that this whole post is just a transparent excuse to get viewers to read past posts, including my very first (also about swimming), which hasn't got a lot of viewers. To this accusation I say: well, yeah.
Or, I can stay the course and do what I've been doing.

You can guess my choice.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Come again another day

Don't be fooled by the ferocious sea: It was rocky, but this is from a low angle on a wave just
about to crest on the beach, between the South End and Dolphin Clubs' docks. I'm about
to hand off the next leg to Lisa Amorao, who shot the day-long adventure with a GoPro™©
camera mounted over her swim cap. The masts of the Balclutha, a 19th-Century
cargo ship, loom in the back.
By noon the day after, the floor finally stopped heaving.

Unseen forces finally stopped pitching me forward whenever I stood still, and stopped nudging me off my gait down the hallway.

Now I miss that gentle vertigo, an unexpected souvenir of what I'd just done: Joined a team that swam 24 hours straight in San Francisco Bay.

See exactly what we did here, a rollicking video by teammate Lisa Amorao.

The 24-hour Swim Relay was Suzie Dods' crazy idea back in November. At least, that's when she unleashed the proposition upon the swimming world. Maybe it brewed in her brain long before.

Looking back, I probably had no business taking part. The 54 swimmers who flocked to Aquatic Park in the Bay last weekend, to the quirky, cozy confines of the South End Rowing Club and Dolphin Club's complex at the edge of the water, are channel swimmers (English, Catalina, you name it) and big-lake crossers. They swim great distances, fast. They direct and organize distance swims of their own. Google their names and their epic exploits top your list of choices — and Suzie is a channel and distance swimmer extraordinaire. She also guided me on my first Bay swim three years ago.

It was an honor to design the cap logo, which I filled with landmarks and the wishful
thought of safely encountering a sea lion. Several asked what the shape on the lower
left is. It depends on your attitude: It's a watch marking time, or a circling drain.
Many of these swimmers who took part dart through the green silty salty waters of the Bay regularly, know the tides, know the dangers.

I swim cold and flat Lake Natoma, have swum its length on three separate summer occasions, and swim Aquatic Park maybe once a year. So end my credentials.

But I brought them, some chutzpah I didn't know I had, and three friends — Lorena, David and Karl — with whom I swim at Lake Natoma, to join the team.

Through a Lake Natoma swimming connection, we gained two San Francisco Bay veterans from the south Bay Area — Lisa and Fred — and during the swim were able to add another veteran, aptly named El Sharko, to the team.

(Two Natoma stalwarts, Doug and Patti, got sick right before and couldn't come. All the more reason to do this again next year.)

The name is everything! Option 2 was
Team Curglaff. Lisa Amorao photo
We became the Fogheads, as new Bay Area friend and teammate Fred dubbed us.

Chutzpah took a hit the night before the swim, when Suzie told the gathered swimmers, "Watch yourself: The first swim will feel great, the second and third will feel fine. It's the fifth, sixth and seventh swim, swimming in the dark, when you will really feel it."

Fifth, sixth and seventh swims? I hadn't really considered them. What had I done? I'm gonna have trouble, and now I've talked several people into getting into trouble. The Bay's 51-degree water wouldn't bother me; we swim in colder water near Sacramento. But swim after swim — seven in all for me over 24 hours, most of them 1.5 miles each — was not something I had necessarily trained for.

I'm used to swimming our Lake Natoma once a day, 1.3 miles or so at a go, dancing in the parking lot to exorcise the shivers, swilling hot cocoa until warm again, and driving home. That being that.

This event was so. Much. More.
Too late to doubt. Time to strap up. In all, I swam 10 miles — the Fogheads must have logged in at least 60 miles together. In the end, we smiled; throughout, we smiled. This was a strange and wonderful journey we were taking together, that we were somehow accomplishing. It was hard not to smile.

Each swimmer was to complete at least one 3/4-mile clockwise triangle of Aquatic Park lap at a go — along a buoy line parallel to shore to a floating "wedding cake" buoy with a flag atop and a thermometer dangling by a tether into the water, near the Maritime Museum; then through a collection of moored sailboats out to the end of two jetties marking the bay entrance to the park; then back to the clubhouse past the historic ships Balclutha and Thayer tied up at the Hyde Street Pier.

The next swimmers had to be at least shin deep in the water to high-five their incoming teammates, calling out their numbers, before starting their turns.

I usually swam two laps. We heard of at least one swimmer who swam five laps at a go.

Throughout, miracles happened, big and small:
  • It rained.
  • and rained.
  • and rained.
  • It never stopped raining (an unconfirmed source alleges that rain stopped between 5 and 6 a.m. but I'm inclined to doubt, having picked one of those hours to sleep in a corner of one of the South End Club's handball courts.)
  • We'll take any credit cast our way for putting a dent in the horrible drought. Bright calm unseasonable skies heralded us — until the night before the swim, when winter began making up for lost time. Wind blew throughout, sometimes hard. Swimming became our salvation, our way out of the misery of standing on South End's pier awaiting our turn or checking in on incoming teammates.

    The gray boil of sky matched the green roil of water.
  • I met a man named Jim Bock. Met a man, I say, because when last we met, he was a little skinny kid with me in fourth grade during our former lives in the little Air Force/diatomaceous-earth mining city of Lompoc, Calif.

    In the event's early planning and flurry of facebook®© and email communications, I came across Jim Bock's deceptively unusual name. One and the same? One and the same! And somehow we are reunited 43 years and six hours away from our hometown by an avocation neither of us had imagined back then.

    A nice dinner with him as he met Nancy, our son and his girlfriend, was not enough conversation. I was busy swimming, he busy watching over us as a volunteer guardian and South End denizen, so we'll have to make future excuses to continue the talk. Good thing he swims in such a beautiful pool.
  • A sea lion did not eat me. More important, a sea lion did not nibble on my kneecaps, which was the irrational fear I carried into each swim. It didn't help that on my second round trip, mid-afternoon Saturday, I saw a sleek black shape surf the green waves out toward the opening of Aquatic Park, where the water begins to get rough.

    The shape was so big, it occupied two waves. Just as quickly, it disappeared.

    "Did I see what I thought I saw?" I asked the kayaker/guardian angel posted at the opening.

    "Yeah," said the angel, "but I saw it chomping on a fish a while back, so it won't be interested in the swimmers."

    Night presented a different story. Just when I had let my mind wander in the dark sensory deprivation of the water, my safe cocoon, I felt a smooth shape slide right into me. After a big swallow of water, I stopped to see — another swimmer! Somehow in all this water, each of us lit up like little Christmas trees with our blinking lights and glow bracelets, we crashed.

    'Round midnight, lulled by the relief of reaching the dock — it loomed like a torii gate silhouetted in the clubhouse's orange lights — another shape crashed on my head. An aggressive sea lion declaring territory? No, another swimmer doing the butterfly. We smiled in shared relief.
  • Virtual swimmers became real. I have before sung the praises of a facebook™© page called "Did you swim today?" (dyst?) The relay provided opportunity to meet some of the swimmers with whom I have shared daily stories of swims from around the world.

    There came peripatetic Londoner Jackie Cobell, a member of swimming royalty, a cheery ambassador of open water swimming, known now as much for the extreme cold-water swims she's made as for holding the record for the longest time taken to cross the English Channel, 28 hours, 44 minutes.

    I met Mark Spratt of Indiana, a dedicated distance swimmer and dyst? poster, and Amanda Hunt from Australia by way of Chicago. Globetrotter Bruckner Chase, a long-distance swimmer from New Jersey and American Samoa whose livelihood advocates for ocean health and access to the ocean for all people, was there too.
  • No one went hungry. No one had a chance: Food filled a big table in the South End dining room, and food never stopped filling the table. At 4:30 a.m., fresh pepperoni pizza suddenly appeared. Imagine how good pepperoni pizza tastes at that hour after a disorienting swim!

    The modest entry fee and the generosity of swimming cooks went far — loaves-and-fishes far. Who could not get fuel was a fool.

    I drank cup after paper cup of hot water, until the cup could no longer hold its shape and I'd get another. I was driving off cramps as best I could, and took electrolyte tablets swimmer Bruckner Chase had provided right before each swim.

    Lisa Amorao's delicious couscous dish tempted me to skip a rotation and scarf it all instead.
  • The world in the wee hours became magic.

    On my second night swim, around 3:30 a.m., all was dark save for lights along the shore and the gargantuan Ghirardelli chocolates sign (gleaming for whom? I wondered). It was much darker than it had been 'round midnight. The water this time fizzed as I entered, so loudly it hissed through the wax ear plugs I wear to ward off cold and keep from getting dizzy.

    As my arms drove the fizzing water below me, bright green balls of light rose from them, up and past me. Another Bay veteran swimmer had told me about the bioluminescence given off by tiny creatures — were they making the fizz? — but I was sure he was mistaking it for bubbles that caught the ambient light of The City. Of course he knew better, and I swam along enjoying the gift of sight and sound and sense. Suddenly I became very calm, and in that calm grateful to God for this opportunity, and deep in thought for my wife and son to be able to see some of the event, and my late mom, whose birthday was Saturday.

    Heading for the showers and another twitchy cycle of warming up, I heard Jim Bock on the South End dock, clad in a yellow sou'wester as he checked off the swimmers, singing "Greenland Whale Fisheries" into the sideways rain.
  • Fogheads came through. "King" Karl helped South End folks move a sailboat and almost missed one of his rotations. David helped warm up a shivering swimmer in the middle of the night. (Normally in a wetsuit as an Ironman™© triathlete, David went several go-rounds without.) Lorena staffed the kitchen when our team's time came, and summoned the grit to go out each time in the foreign waters, emerging strong each time.

    Lisa continues to provide inspiration with her photos and video and cheer, resolving to swim in the dark without an escort, as she had first planned. Her Karl (different from our "King" Karl) kayaked even though he was sick.

    Fred and "King" Karl worked the walkie-talkies from midnight to the end so that weary swim teams could know their turns from the comfort of the South End dining room.

    Modest Chris "El Sharko" Blakeslee, a South End veteran and heralded as one of the oldest swimmers to cross the English Channel, joined our team midway as his team was dispersed, and at every turn did what he could to make our team go.

    I'm overjoyed to have been among them.
Most of the Fogheads: David, Fred, Fast Karl, me after the final lap, Lorena and Lisa. In the hullabaloo,
we lost track of Chris "El Sharko" for the photo. Nancy Turner photo.
Suzie Dods had it pegged: The first swims were a fine and relatively easy. "King" Karl, our youngest and fastest, led off the rounds 9 a.m. Saturday. It was the only lap that felt like a race, all of the nine teams seeming to send off their fastest.

By 11:30 p.m., three or four go-rounds into it and 13 1/2 hours later, the clocks seemed to stop, and missed naps were widely regretted. Nine teams had collapsed to seven, smaller teams dispersed to medium-sized teams.

By 11:30 p.m., my underarms and neck chafing and stinging, I began to think this endeavor folly. Teams fell to sleeping when and where they could — sometimes all but the swimmer in the water was asleep, and the next in line had to be found and roused so the teammate could officially leave the water.

Early-morning swims (the fifth and sixth go-rounds) required extra deep breaths, extra smidgens of motivation. Each round required swimmers to know the tides and how they changed. Failing to adjust meant more work at best or swimming into hulking breakwaters and historic moored ships at worst. Even the buoy line near shore was dodgy in the dark — one swimmer returned with a cut forehead from swimming into a buoy.

When I relayed Suzie Dods' announcement that teams who were tired should just all take a break for one or two swimmers' rotations — "It's not a race, we're not keeping books," she said —  "King" Karl (aka Fast Karl) was incredulous.

"That would be cheating!" he said. "You couldn't say you swam 24 hours straight, then." None of the Fogheads even considered it, I gather.

Right before dawn, the clock sped up. Light shone in the darkness. Strength returned.

Karl, Fred and me, never quite dry. Lisa Amorao photo.
By hook or crook or conspiracy, I had the privilege of swimming the last leg of the last go-round for our team. The big triangle route, closed off in the early hours when visibility and conditions worsened, was reopened with sunup. I tried to make two laps as before, but wasn't fast enough to come in on time. I settled for one lap around and one lap along the buoy line next to shore, as leisurely as possible, before heading back in.

Swimmers who had earlier gathered on the dock to cheer Suzie Dods for her last swim (she came in towing a kayak with her teeth) were back on the dock cheering the last swimmers and our shared accomplishment. A wave lifted us onto the beach for the last time.

Many of us weren't even dry before we were wishing aloud to do this impossible thing again next year.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

So it goes

So, "so" is the new "you know," I guess.

So close to being a replacement for "uh" or "um," except for its quirky new useless use.

So, lately I've heard more and more people begin sentences with the word "so."

So, usually these sentences are explanations. So, most often they're spoken by professionals in some discipline, explaining things to reporters on National Public Radio. So, sue me: I don't get around much anymore.

So, (a correct use of "so," by the way, meaning "for example"), a reporter may ask a science expert, "What allows the cuttlefish to hide by mimicking the texture of its surroundings?" and the expert more and more begins the answer: "So, we've found certain receptors within the skin that send signals to the cuttlefish's blah blah blah …"

"So" is so (another correct use, as an adverb to qualify this next word) superfluous in this sentence. So, "We've found certain receptors" is a mighty fine way to begin a sentence, so why not leave out "So?"

So, what's going on?

So, my theory is that some condescending expert sometime in the last year — speaking to the news media, no doubt — began a sentence thusly to mean, "Let me walk you through this, pea-brained reporter who keeps asking such childish questions."

So it caught on, because other experts heard other experts using it, and decided it must be the norm because they're all so smart.

"So" is really "um," with a master's degree, a tonal cue to help someone release the clutch and engage the brain and start talking. So that's all.

So, the preferred use of "so" in the cuttlefish case would be as a conjunction, a "therefore," an "as a result:" "The cuttlefish can't hide by color alone, so over time the cuttlefish evolved to have sensors and sensitive muscle fibers to blah blah blah …"

So it's akin to one of the other new abominations of English by people who should know better, namely "going forward," which is a stupid phrase that smart people use to mean the future, when verb tenses already do that job, have been doing the job for centuries. So just about every NPR and ESPN anchor, for example, uses this phrase, because they're all so smart and time is a variable concept in news and sports, apparently.

"So" is a distant relative to the horrendous "look," used by self-described experts, namely politicians and political analysts. So, "look" means, "I know the truth, even if I don't, even if it isn't, and I will explain it to you because only I have the capacity to know this stuff until I tell you." So, whenever you hear a windbag begin a sentence with "so," stop listening.

"So" is also a screenwriter's crutch, the word one character says when in an awkward conversation and none of the partners know or like one another. "So" is not used in such real-life settings.

So I forgive the use of "so" which I blame on the TV comedy "Friends," in which characters began saying things like, "I'm so not going there,"  or "I so need a vacation," using "so" as emphasis. "So" in this case became a tag for "I'm so young and hip," the corollary being, "You are not young and hip when you don't say "so" this way."

So, I don't hear "so" so much in other real-life conversations, to begin sentences — just enough to convince me it's spilling out of nerd-pop media and into the streets. So keep an ear out for it.

So freakin' annoying!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Knowing the unknowable

We don't think much of God.

Small wonder we care so little for each other.

Three cases in point this week:

1.) Bill "The Science Guy" Nye debated Ken Ham, president of the Creation Museum, over the argument: Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?

(Fascinating to watch, but clear out some time. Check it out.)

Ham argues yes, the earth is 6,000 years old, and all the answers for the universe's origins are in the Bible. We can only know, says Ham, what we as humans can observe directly.

Further, says Ham, atheists and secularists conspire with government to suppress creation as a science, and persecute its believers. Ham referred to scientists outside of creation as "secularists."

Nye says no, creation science does not explain our origins, if only because science has found things on earth that are older than 6,000 years. Among other evidence.

The United States stands at great peril in world science and technology mastery, says Nye, if we raise generations of Americans who believe in creation as a science. Nye referred to creation as a science "the Ken Ham model."

Full disclosure: I'm a Christian, a lukewarm one, the worst kind. I am a troubled Catholic — troubled by belonging to a religion whose good works may be vast, but whose suppression and subjugation and killing and war and torture and terror and conspiracy across the globe over the centuries are also vast. I remember my mom, born Methodist I believe and raised Catholic, left the church when we were kids because she was upset at its treatment of the Indians of California by priests from Spain as they established missions three centuries ago.

Even this week we are reminded that the Catholic church has conducted a system of protecting and hiding priests who have raped children — rather than seeking their prosecution and punishment — in an effort to save the church's reputation and standing. Only now is the church beginning to acknowledge and act correctly upon the decades of horror and pain and abuse of children under the trusting care of priests, but the hurt will go on.

Though not affected directly by this abuse, it has changed deeply and adversely how I view my church.

(Nevermind not a few infamous efforts by the Catholic church to suppress science and discovery.)

I believe in God, but not as we generally and typically view God, as a giant bearded and robed man in and of the stars. I believe in heaven, or a time and space after we die, though not the heaven as it's come to be explained to me, as a paradisal reunion of all our loved ones, in harmony and bliss, which sounds boring.

I believe religions mark one way humans try to order and understand their world, their community, their people. But I also believe — and human history shows time and again — religion creates separation of humans, differentiates them, raises some, brings others low, gives reason for one group of humans to kill in God's name, right up to today, and surely tomorrow. Religion would be great if it weren't for people.

What keeps me in faith is the mystery of our ability to love and have compassion, our ability to live and move and have our being (as it says in Acts and a eucharistic prayer in the Catholic church). It's an arrogant, human-centered faith, I know, believing in some spark that moves in our lives — because I agree with Bill Nye that we take advantage of our human intelligence while we can, but intelligence and dominance don't guarantee our dominion. Germs can easily be our undoing on earth, he said.

This is not a post-mortem of the debate. Nye and Ham best me for arguing at length and depth, and this subject is a mire from which I'm surprised these two emerged. Some scientists questioned whether Nye should have engaged the debate in the first place; that just agreeing to debate legitimizes creation as a science.

I may anger or sadden some people I know by what I think — and what I think is a Biblically literal creation is not only loony, it doesn't give God much credit.

Is it a great God who would create the universe in seven days, 6,000 years ago, fill the earth with flora and fauna and man to rule it, and declare "That's all you need to know?"

Or is a God great whose universe is vast beyond our understanding, whose creations comprise and come about by processes and mechanics ornate and largely unknown, and that among those creations are humans, who have the capacity to feel and learn and love and think, who thirst for knowing the answer to where we (where everything) came from?

And wouldn't that capacity to learn and think include ways of measuring and exploring the universe not only of the time and space we experience, but of time long gone and distance unreached? Even of doubting God and imagining other possibilities? Isn't God great enough for that?

Ham, for example, dismissed as unreliable the methods used to measure the age of some earthly and heavenly processes. I pictured God playing scientists as fools, sending them out on needless errands — as a cosmic prank? — when all we need to know is in the Bible. Which makes me wonder about the scientists Ham frequently referred to in the debate, creation scientists with accredited science degrees. I wonder what they might seek if all the answers are already available to them.

Actually, merry prankster is a fitting image, God saying, "That's for me to know and you to find out." Another fun trick: Maybe God looks like a bacterium.
(While I type, I'm listening to an aftermath discussion with Ken Ham and Georgia Purdom, a molecular biologist with a PhD who is part of, an online group advocating creation as a science, that Ham directs.

The discussion is a sort of eviscerating of Nye in absentia — entertainment for Ham and Purdom's supporters — even criticizing the quality of Nye's slides compared to the animation Ham presented, which came complete with caricatures of Nye and Ham.

As a "Yay Us!" session, it diminishes the debate.)
Isn't it miracle enough that life exists? Because if life is found on another heavenly body, isn't creation as a science untenable?

I subscribe to Nye's motivation, the joy of discovery, wanting to know what's out there and in us.

2.) For the Super Bowl, a Coca-Cola™®© commercial featured people singing "America the Beautiful" in eight languages, sparking a social media outrage.

In the so-called Twitterverse™©, pissed-off people kissed off Coke® as "communist liquid" and by large numbers explained, "This is America and we speak English!"

Even someone I volunteer with, someone far outside Coke®™'s demographic, said those same words yesterday.

Once I got over the shock that people would give Coke®™ such credence as a style maker, I wondered whether we have gotten anywhere at all as a people since I was a kid. Back then, I looked to a future of greater understanding and equality, and in many ways I have seen it, looking back from these 50-plus years.

Then I learn of the vitriol that a minute-long commercial raised, of a quintessentially American song in many languages — a song written, it has been pointed out numerous times, by a lesbian — and wonder if I really just saw hatred and fear under a thin veneer of progress.

Better the world should ask why the United States speaks only one language, at least officially.

3.) Tomorrow the Winter Olympics begin, packaged for red-blooded American hoo-rah multimedia medal count consumption, on a veneer of ice and snow and civility, in a country that officially bans the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships" to minors, and equates homosexuality with pedophilia.

So let's celebrate the coming together of nations in spirited and joyful competition, with a Coke™© at McDonalds®© to show off our new 2014 Games Ralph Lauren®© après-ski wear, all made possible with a quick whisk of my Visa®©™.

For the Bible tells me so?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Gym membership, paid in full(er)

I am mostly wrong.

"Hey," I announced, "The state parks people have changed all their annual passes! Our pass is gonna cost less next year!!"

"No way," answered David, one of my swimming buddies, younger but much wiser. "The state is not going to make anything cost you less money."

He produced his Tom Whiz-Bang®™ device (my much, much, much better name for smart phones … all you phone makers can have my idea, free of charge … not that you'd ask permission) and showed, sure enough, the annual park pass we'd need costs more than last year's, which cost more than the pass from the year before.

Keeping more parks open, one frequent user at a time.

Our E ticket to Lake Natoma — our daily pass to our daily passion — used to be called the Golden Poppy Annual Pass, but with this 150th anniversary of the California State Parks, it's now the Commemorative Day Use Annual Pass.

And it costs $150. Maybe that's commemorative too.

"150 years" is printed as a hologram on the pass (gave my scanner fits). The commemorative pass depicts a ranger beside a car parked in a car-sized hole in a redwood tree. What better symbol of stewardship over a century and a half, after all, than a hole cut out of the heart of a tree so a car can drive through?

Mine is a conversation piece — I'm gonna get stopped all summer long by staffers at the entrance kiosks because the parks official who issued the pass accidentally lopped off a month and then wrote the correct month in.

"No, I didn't write that," I can hear myself insisting time and again. "I bought this directly from the state office and the guy said he made a mistake and don't worry about — what?! No, I'm telling you, I didn't write that, look at the notch he cut!"

But I digress.

The cheaper pass I found, called the California Park Experience Vehicle Day Use Annual Pass, is $75, and the state says it "provides access to many great state parks from the San Francisco Bay Area to Humboldt Redwoods, inland state parks and more."

Which is the state park system's way of saying "gets you into property you really don't care to see."

God, I'm vicious.

I'm not knocking Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park, which 118 years ago sent the country's first hydroelectric power by long distance, 22 miles from Folsom to Sacramento. It's historic, deserves preserving, some people are interested in it — and I love the idea that at the time people thought that electric current had to travel in a straight line and could not go around corners.

But it's not going to get overwhelmed with visitors. It's included on the $75 Park Experience pass, which won't get you into Lake Natoma, even though the powerhouse sits on the lakeshore (which is the American River in disguise). You can't go anywhere in the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area — of which Natoma apparently is the Lake That Will Not Be Named — without the $150 pass.

Nor can I get to the powerhouse, which I swim by three days a week, with my $150 pass.

Clever folks, those parks people.

I shouldn't complain, though. Even with the ever rising price, the pass is extremely valuable to folks like me, lucky to live near state parks. By the end of this month I will have gone to swim at Lake Natoma several more times than it would have cost me to wrestle with the lethargic and awkwardly designed ticket machines at Lake Natoma's entrances each day.

I'm losing money for the state. The ideal demographic are those holding the romantically flawed notion that a park pass will finally get their families to all those parks they've been meaning to see.

California's parks still still make money off us when we invariably drive by a state park we've always been meaning to see — and remember that the annual pass is in the other car.

I'm also partly right: To my surprise the state parks people also gave me a card, the Historian Passport Day Use Admission Annual Pass (these just dance off the tongue!), listed as a $50 value; so my annual pass could really be $100 if I work hard at it. The card will get me and three others into places such as Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park.

Maybe I'll go.