Thursday, March 27, 2014

A frayed knot

Trips trip me up anymore. You too?

Mine become essays, with themes and thorny puzzles, questions and frayed answers, and denouement, tidy or no.

I write and rewrite them at 72 mph.

Since most trips lately take us on Interstate 5, the long straight stretches across the Sacramento Valley set the drone for mental proofreading.

Except I don't really know the theme for last weekend's trip. Surrender? Futility, with faint light of redemption?

Lake Shasta is low — summer low. In the state's worst drought ever, the lake has such little water to collect from the Cascades and release into the Sacramento River.

The great rusted belt of earth exposed by the dropping water is lovely and terrible.

A path has been carved into the orange earth under the I-5 bridge so that boaters can descend to the marina and get to their slips. No one seemed to be boating what is left of the turquoise water as we passed.

Oregon's southern rivers — the Klamath, the Rogue, the forks of the Umpqua, the Willamette, the McKenzie — already roll in their summer somnolence, fast but thin, sheening shallow over riprap. Oregon is in drought too, though it's more difficult to see in the evergreen damp along the freeway.

We had taken my mom-in-law back home, after more than three months in Northern California, to visit and have surgery and recuperate. It occurs to me after dropping her off and tending to a little spring cleaning that she will be by herself for the first time in decades. My dad-in-law passed away last year. One of her sons had been living nearby, but he came down with us before Christmas and lives around here now.

She is strong and ready to be back with her forested and terraced community of retirees, which instantly embraced her. A resident busily scrubbing around the trailer waste disposal site recognized us somehow and asked Nancy how her mom is doing. It is community with a capital C.

She has much to do and much she wants to do.

I drove solo on the way up; Nancy rode with her mom in her car. Flipping the radio in a failed search for spring training baseball, I got Oregon State baseball for a brief moment, from a broadcaster who sounded like he was doing a Vin Scully impersonation, right down to the hissing lisp and the skirling Bronx vowels.

That's the thing with radio in southern Oregon: Brief moments. National Public Radio is handed off from tower to relay tower, signal crackling for 20 minutes before fading; if you're lucky, the station will list the other frequencies so you can catch the rest of the story on another station before its last raspy detail.

Christian radio knows no barriers here. Their signals stay strong even in the narrowest gorges. If you don't want one station, another is just a few blips away, just as strong.

Their broadcasters seem to talk a lot about "creation science." I hung with one program, the upshot of which was that the lack of fossil evidence for any transition of one creature into another proves "creation science's" point that creation diversified rapidly in the few thousand years the universe existed. "Creation science," the show host said, is more relevant than ever and needs to be taught in schools.

I processed that. So, because scientists haven't found a complete fossil array of related creatures, and "creation scientists" discount what they have found and the agreed-upon (except for "creation science") methods for how old they may be, then "creation science" wins by default?

A commercial on the station promoted books that parents can share with their children to bolster the creation story, including diagrams showing children how all the animals could fit on Noah's ark.

Why — why are we still talking about this? I sighed. Why is this not settled? Why can't we worry about other things, like how Syria and the Central African Republic are human butcher shops, how Nigeria's people burn at terrorists' torches, how Russia does whatever Russia seems to be doing to the people of Ukraine. Why can't we move on? What century is this?

We lumber in retrograde.

As for redemption … I look for hooks to snag hope. The reservoir near my mom-in-law's place is full, as is my beloved Lake Natoma, full for now. Their high levels are mysteries to me, or maybe I just choose to think that, water suspended in disbelief.

My mom-in-law prays for Nancy, prays for me, prays for all of us, just as her husband did. Prays for all the world's woes, which is sometimes what is left to do.

In the dipping turn of the freeway I find slack, then momentum.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

To pay Paul

Blessed and cursed, editorial cartoonists are forever trying to harness one issue/event/person/color as metaphor for whatever issue/event/person/color they're skewering. Bonus if the two collide. So to speak.

Twenty-five years ago, the Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound in Alaska, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil, killing wildlife on a massive scale, ruining a sensitive environment, and the fishing and tourism and general economy of the southern state. Despite valiant efforts to top it — even this weekend! — the Exxon Valdez spill remains one of the country's worst environmental disasters.

Twenty-five years ago, Rep. Tony Coelho, a rising star in the Democratic Party and a favorite to become House majority leader, faced intense scrutiny over the purchase of $100,000 in so-called high-yield "junk bonds" (all the rage at the time), and speculation that the purchase also bought Coelho's help for the savings and loan industry (which enraged us all at the time).

Coelho resigned from Congress and his post as party whip, though he was not charged with a crime. His district overlapped with some of The Stockton Record's readership.

Democrats in Congress had become less moored than usual from ethics and civic duty in 1989, and Coelho's troubles were just one manifestation.

What could I say about the spill itself that hadn't already been documented by then? (Bad oil! Bad! Bad!!) But I might have been able to use the terrible spill to bring light to issues voters might want to wonder about.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

End of an epoch: Sketchbook 26

Despite the burden of these beasts, my sketchbooks are damnably hard to fill.

Each takes me more than a year, even though it's my everything — iPad®™, calendar, phone book, shopping list, legal pad, id and superego. Oh, and a place to draw stuff.

Though I don't think twice anymore about drawing in public  — though I draw every day — my output is invariably frugal, and blank pages seem to regenerate out the back end. I seem to never reach the back cover.

But somehow I did with Sketchbook 26; it's finally filled, just before the yellow cardstock cover came loose of its spiral binding. It's hard to close flat from months of daily use, so when I close it next, it will be for a long time.

(I know once I said I had three dozen sketchbooks, but I was thinking wishfully …)

Exploring canine styles for a client's greeting card.
Now I have begun with a new book, this one hardbound in black, sturdy and resistant to dings, which I got by pure luck in a two-for-one sale. Commence the slow slog.

Here's an elegy to No. 26, random doodles for paying projects or playing around, which I haven't shown already — or don't plan to show some other way some other day.
Ever since I could draw, people have asked who or what I was drawing. Ninety-eight
percent of the time the answer is, "I don't know." I started from the right eye and
kept going from there. He must really love bread sticks, or whatever those are.
First drawing in Sketchbook No. 26,
for a shelved client project.
Swim friend Doug Bogle spoke once of
seahorses. Seahorses, you say?
as I went home wanting to push
my pencil around.
Captain America-ish figure for an art class
I was teaching. Gotta know how to draw 'em
before I can teach how to draw 'em. Am I right?
Sketch of renowned distance swimmer Martin Strel,
for a possible project.
For swim friend Zane Hodge of Mississippi,
who regales us all with the Mike Fink-magnitude
swimming and running rivalry with Randy Beets.
Storyboard thumbnails for a project I'm trying desperately to
see through to life, something you can hold in your hands.
Sketches for a client poster,
highways as an analogy.
Earlier sketches for the same poster,
highways as a horrific analogy.
A person gets bored. A person gets a Prismacolor©® black pencil and a
fine-tipped black pen, and things happen.
Celtic knots: not easy, I conclude.
Study for a nephew's painting.

It started with the hatted head. The rest is pure speculation.
More from my personal project, the one I'm trying desperately to complete.
It amuses me how my sketchbooks will show the stop-and-start progress
of projects, separated by many pages, some to wither in pencil form. Not this. Not this.
Who's gotta Prismacolor™® pencil?!
I've gotta Prismacolor©® pencil!
Do not invite an inveterate doodler to a meeting where not much gets done, and do not let the doodler
bring many pages of blank paper and a pen.
Above all, do not let the doodler find a teacher's red pencil.
Concept for a client's greeting card, a peaceful place to end this
parade. Thanks for scrolling along.
Now Sketchbook 26 goes on the shelf. Now I try to figure out why all these scans suddenly end up on Blogger™® with a grayish background.

Carry on.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pops into my head

Most days, creativity plays hard to get.

Its reputation, let me tell you, is undeserved.

Most days I try to lure it out with the scratching of my pencil on sketchbook paper, or fitful tapping on my keyboard. Or I ignore creativity, walking the dog, washing the dishes, trying on hats, until I can grab it napping by its twitching ringed tail.

Hard work, getting creative, is what I'm saying.

Then not so very often, like yesterday, creativity wraps about my neck like a scarf and purrs. (That "ka-thunk" was the sound of an analogy having been taken a step too far.)

I was rolling yesterday. It began as it does with many illustration jobs where, after bursts of wrestling ideas into image, come long aftermaths of preparing the art for reproduction; with digital art, I find it often requires tedious regrouping, renaming and reshaping a myriad little objects so a printer can use the file.

After getting the last few parts and pieces in place for one job, a fellow "Did you swim today?" swimmer, Dan Simonelli down in La Jolla, described on facebook®™ a 10-mile ocean swim he had just completed, but groused about having forgotten a camera to document it.

He posted it, as all of us DYST? swimmers do on our own facebook©™ page, swimmers from around the world, whether pool or river or ocean or lake or catfish pond. It's our daily fix.

Offhandedly, Dan asked if I'd sketch his trek based on his description.

I draw for pay. That's food on my table, to be blunt. But I draw for fun ultimately, and sometimes I can't help myself. And all day long I'd been goofing with some particular technique in Adobe™®© Illustrator. This goofy technique just seemed to suit his request.

In a flash I envisioned exactly how to map his swim, which he said included Kevin, his kayaker and logistical and nutrition support … dolphins playing nearby … a water skier racing close by at 70 mph … choppy water that smoothed out … and a view of the coast.

I added a whale, not uncommon on swims where Dan holds forth, and this is the time of year to see grays; and a tentacle, maybe of an octopus, maybe a kraken. A guy can dream.

I dismembered Dan and placed his parts and pieces throughout the sea-green swirl, to suggest the arc of his extremely long swim. I'm just guessing he wears a GPS wristwatch, so I put one on a disembodied arm.

It was pure play. I had no one to please but myself, but in pleasing myself I wanted to make Dan laugh. I was laughing hard on the inside while moving my mouse, making and cutting and moving myriad shapes.

Somehow this reminds me of long ago in elementary school, the first time an idea came to me whole and without hesitation. Our teacher was having us make puppets using old panty hose and wire coat hangers we brought from home. I don't remember what for, maybe to kill an afternoon.

The puppets were to look like this (left), with construction-paper facial features and maybe yarn for hair. Hangers were bent into diamonds, and a section of hose stretched over the frame and tied off.

I do remember a contest was made of it —a Snickers®™ bar. Did someone say "contest?"

This was the time I was learning to draw by copying my favorite comic strips — T.K. Ryan's heavily stylized "Tumbleweeds," Gus Arriola's loose and calligraphic "Gordo," Russell Myers' loose and loony "Broom Hilda."

Good cartooning entranced me. I was getting stronger in my drawing skills, and when this puppet contest took place, the solution suddenly popped complete into my head: Why does it have to look like the teacher's example? Can't it look like something else?

Something like this? I bent the coat hanger diamond along the horizontal axis and turned that bend into a mouth. I drew eyes that I saw on a T-shirt I liked very much, fastened them with thickly glued pieces of paper so they'd flop upright, then added fangs that hung down and long forked tongue that lolled out. Roundish shapes of construction paper suggested scales.

I won. A big Snickers©™ bar. And I used the story for a speech in college.

And I use it still today, a story of hope for days yet ahead, when creativity may be caught napping.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Hour of grace

A demo of guidelines for drawing facial features.
My weekends begin on Thursdays these days, 2:21 p.m. on the nose.

By that time my car has curled off Florin Road onto Highway 99 north, the traffic manageable at this time of day, no artful dodging or engine gunning required to join the flow.

My chest rises then, the way it does for children when they're just about to leave the schoolground on a Friday afternoon, or for you Friday evenings, when you have turned the homeward corner onto your street.

The sturm und drang of the week has rattled its last, and the next week is long in slack. The air is lighter. You are free.

I'm free a day before you. But by Friday my restful feeling dissipates, the slack is gone and the pressure already begins to build.

All for one hour.

I teach art for that hour, 1:15 to 2:15 on Thursdays, to young adults who have developmental disabilities.

Please understand, the hour itself is wonderful. All of life transpires in that hour — wonder and anxiety and creation and failure and reason and frustration and hope and adventure and hellos and goodbyes. Buoyant hellos and heartfelt goodbyes.

That one hour informs my week. That one hour wears me out.

I have taught art classes for three years — once a week during one or two school terms each year — through a program inspired by the Kennedy family's devotion to people with special needs. Each year I have been able to work with the same class, more or less, of young adults, allowed to continue in public education until they turn 22.

In this class they practice living independently — making their way around the greater city, managing households, finding and keeping jobs — and they get one hour with me.

Just one hour. But I don't want to let them down.

In that hour I feel the pangs of my former brief career as a teacher, a profession that demanded the most of my weakest traits, namely planning and organization.

So I hyper-plan and over-organize, or think I do, unschooled as I am, and still face micro-nightmares of the one important item I forgot to bring, or the activity that fell apart for a circumstance I didn't anticipate.

Sometimes those nightmares really happen.

The students' art becomes part of a big festival at the end of each term. After the first show I realized that many of the other teachers, in gentle collusion, teach roughly the same: Introduce a famous artist, spend a couple weeks having students create art inspired by that artist's work, move on to the next artist.

Those teachers' festival gallery spaces blossom with work hinting of Kandinsky, Van Gogh, even ceramics based on creations of glass artist Dale Chihuly.

I keep missing that memo and have worked with these students on process instead. The result is not a garden of art on the walls, but just one or two show pieces for each student pulled out of 20 weeks of working from Point A to Point T.

The first year I taught students how to draw superheroes, which the program director discouraged as too juvenile for the young adults, but which their teachers supported for allowing students to advocate for themselves. It was really imagination-powered figure drawing in disguise.

The second year we worked in water color. It continued the drawing skills we had started the class before, but with the mysteries of a new medium. We went to the zoo and sketched the wildlife, and students turned their sketches to washes and flares of color.

We are on yet another new medium — charcoal and pastel — learning how to draw portraits, self and otherwise. Line and shape harnessed to new purpose, light and shadow, three-dimensional objects, with a lot of messy dust.

Beginning Friday afternoon, I'm thinking of that dust. I'm thinking of ways to get students to moderate the way they press their charcoal sticks to paper so that they can get it to spread where they want it to get and not so much on the tables or their clothes.

I'm wondering how to proceed from the week's lesson so that next week's is meaningful and interesting. I'm wondering why I didn't realize some students wouldn't see that light cast on an object from one side casts a shadow on the other. I'm considering backing up from there, finding a different way to teach light and shadow, before teaching more about facial features, without boring them.

Charge and retreat and regroup and reflect. That's my teaching style. I don't know what I don't know.

Come May, the festival walls need to feature these students' self-portraits and perhaps portraits of famous people. We have a big journey still ahead, and by each Friday I'm worried whether I'm going to get them there.

It's a miracle I managed full days as a teacher, innards writhing with the constant anxiety that I was failing students who needed me most.

My anxiety manifests in sweat, which a principal once told me never to do. I drip all over the students' work. "You need a paper towel?" one of the students' aides asks.

"I need a shower, is what I need."

In that hour I fail. In that hour I find redemption. In that hour hope blossoms. Almost all the students want to do their best, and I encourage them to do as best they can but to enjoy making mistakes because that's a good way to learn how to do something better. I break the precious charcoal sticks to show they're just tools, not jewels.

I draw. They draw. I show. They do. I whirl about the classroom from desk to desk, trying to see progress in the moment, trying to find a different way with each different student to help them find their own way to the next step.

The aides move about in controlled tumult, knowing their students, knowing what they can do, knowing what they can try that they've never tried before. Aides and students help me constantly, distributing materials, helping each other draw.

Their kindness makes me happy, buoying me to my car afterward. Once I was 25 minutes late, working around unannounced road construction, and had neglected to get contact information so I could have warned teachers. Sweaty and unkempt walking into the class, I received a chorus of loud hellos and "Are you all right?"

Though that lesson didn't go very well — you know how sitting idle and anxious for 25 minutes will sap your energy — I learned much from their forgiveness.

Yesterday we all moved forward. Students began to see how a shape casts a shadow, and I began to see ways I can teach that concept better.

It's Friday now. So much to do, so little time. I begin again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Complacency kills nerve endings.

I zoom along freeways at 67 mph (don't tell the highway patrol), in tight NASCAR™® formation with everyone else going everywhere, calmly gauging openings in the moving mass. Occasionally I become aware that I'm hurtling in a metal cage, vulnerable to the laws of physics and vector forces that would become tragic at the slightest miscue.

Shod in Crocs©®, I climb to the roof of my house, minding the guy wires that tether the aerial, kneeling awkwardly and upslope while reaching low to scoop the muck out of the gutters. One wrong step …

Many, many times I swim my beloved lake alone — cold water, cold wind, stealthy rowing craft, blinding sun, eerie dark, what have you. It's still a shock when once in a while someone points out, "That doesn't seem very safe."

I know the risks, decide I can work with them, settle into the hum of self-assuredness and deaf to the drone of danger. I am in control, even if I'm really not.

No such thing for me, however, swimming in the ocean.

All I can control in the ocean is my mind, to impel my body to enter, and to go through the motions. The ocean sings of a living planet, moving, heaving, immense, breathing, unsettled. Unknown. Hungry, maybe. Maybe angry.

I must surrender.

The part that impels outlasts the part that withdraws, and I head into the waves, as I did this weekend.

I met Marta Gaughen, a fellow facebook®™-er for a tour outside the breakers at Doran Beach. I had been there a couple of months before, my brother-in-law walking the beach alongside while I tried out the water, and demanded to know on facebook's "Did you swim today?" page why no one seemed to swim this quiet beach. Marta posted that she swims the beach frequently, and after a time we finally arranged to travel from our far-flung towns to dive in together. Nancy, my sister- and brother-in-law and niece and mom-in-law came along, with our little old dog in tow.

Doran Beach rings Bodega Bay, a shallow cove a patient couple of hours' drive northwest of San Francisco. Think of Bodega Bay as the unhealed scar of the San Andreas Fault, the edge of the continent, which infamously readjusted in 1906 to level Santa Rosa and San Francisco.

The shape of the bay follows a straight and true line southeast forming Tomales Bay, the trough of the fault, plain as day.

No one swims, several people told me, because great white sharks cruise the waters. Marta says sharks pup in the waters outside Bodega Bay in their season, and sharks are all around us. Whatcha gonna do except manage the risks?

I'm slowly, slowly learning the bay's ways. A beach like this in Southern California, it seems, would teem with swimmers and boogie boarders on the gentle waves.

Their absence here at Doran Beach alarms me. But not enough to stay out.

Following Marta's lead, I dive into the waves, and dive again, finally beyond the breakers, and swim parallel to shore, north to the spit of land that forms the jetty for the fishing boats of Bodega Harbor.

The water is 55 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer than in my Lake Natoma these days, and clear to a couple of feet past my down-stroking arm. It is olive green and shapeless beyond that, revealing nothing.

Soft and slightly salty, the water lifts and drops me gently. I count strokes, sighting on some distant building, wondering about where the current is taking me, wondering all I don't know about the water I'm swimming. In the lake, I am moving, the water holding still. But in the ocean, the water moves me, moves around me, despite me. I'm moving, but ultimately the ocean lets me move.

As the smell of fish intensifies toward the jetty, Marta suggests heading back and past our starting point. My body's fine: the water is comfortable and I'm not tired. My brain is the one hiccuping and sputtering; it doesn't want to go back, it wants to get out. My mind decides we have pushed our luck; my mind is quickly laying out the argument that no swimmers were hurt in the undertaking of this endeavor so far — why go father and risk an unhappy outcome with whatever's out there?

Body trumps mind this time and I follow Marta again. She is drawing a bead on a point well wide of the beach where we started, well out into the deeper water. The current, she says, will push us in a curve toward the sand. After a while I trail closer and closer to shore from her angle, and I push out trying to get back out to where she is. With every stroke I think, "OK, I'm OK. OK. I'm OK." My mind is still arguing.

The current has pushed us both back in line with our starting point, and Marta advises swimming straight to the beach and mind the waves.

I have done this enough times now to believe I'm expert, timing the waves to lift me onto the sand. I have managed the risks. I am in control.

Even if I'm really not.

I watch the wave, the one I should have been riding, lift dark and green behind me, then above me. I know enough not to put my back to it.

My mind has made me realize its bulk will fall directly on me, which it did, pounding me to the sand. I force my head straight up in the froth thundering about me, shaking like an astronaut at launch, waiting for the pummeling to subside, then walk up and out of the beach. Safe.

I'll never be comfortable in the ocean.

I can't wait to go again.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"Do they hate kittens too?" (you probably won't get anything if you click, which is the sad point of my post) is my gateway to swimming open water.

I've praised it before as the only thing that got me out there among the wild waves.

Who knows where I'd be without it? High and dry, I'm guessing.

Alcatraz Island unswum. Mountain lakes uncrossed. Races and ice swims untried, night swims unlit, a 24-hour relay swim unconceived.

Adventures aplenty, delayed or denied. is a website that helps clubs and groups worldwide organize and communicate their activities. It's the closest I'll get to what you young folks call "apps."

Through it, I found a group swimming Lake Natoma in the coldest time of the year four years ago, and I'm still swimming because of it. Click its site, click for its calendar, look at the map, tap a message, RSVP, and off I went. Off I go still, several days a week

Now is gone, at least at the time I post this. It's worse than gone: It's somewhere in the great cyberspace beyond, extant but frustratingly unavailable.

Someone hacked a week ago, hacked it good. Or bad. It's been down a week.

You may not have heard of this if you don't use the site. I'm surprised it's not in the news, though; I've read about other websites I'd never even heard of that stirred paroxysms of global news panic when they went offline for a few hours.

This is seven days and counting, and you have to hunt for any news of it, finding it overseas and on tech-y sites. Considering boasts of hosting more than 126,000 groups and clubs worldwide, and has been down so long, I'm surprised and disappointed it's ignored.'s CEO, Scott Heiferman, said the bad news began when he received this email last week:
A competitor asked me to perform a DDoS attack on your website. I can stop the attack for $300 USD. Let me know if you are interested in my offer.
DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service), apparently, is a way of swarming a site with so many phantom requests the site collapses under the attack. Heiferman said refuses to pay the extortion fee, low though it may be, because it may be a ruse and would render and other sites vulnerable to similar attacks. communicates now through its facebook site and a blog, updating its progress out of this nightmare. I imagine its staff plucking stubborn weeds with tweezers from 100 square miles of lawn. I figured they'd be done by the weekend, a pizza in one hand and tweezers in the other, night and day, night and day.

But many nights and days later, the site still produces no more than "Problem loading page" when I try to call it up. The site, reports, got hit by multiple of these DDoS attacks.

The lead organizer of our swim group, the awkwardly named Sacramento Swimming Enthusiasts, says she can get to the site and post swims. But it's moot if other members can't reach the site. A quick glance at the facebook site shows many others from all over still cannot use the site.

(By late Thursday, despite the cheery email from Scott Heiferman — meetup is back! see what's new — meetup is not back and I still can't see what's new, can't even contact to tell it so.)

At the news of the hack, someone tweeted:
Who does a DDoS on @Meetup? Do they hate kittens, too?
Which gets to my point better than I could. The cynic in me can't overcome my belief that is a force for good. It was born in the wake of 9/11 to give people a way to create and nurture communities. last week congratulated groups for meeting despite the loss of their convenient online tools.

The cynic in me looks for culprits.

Maybe a competitor is at work, crumpling its foe, taunting with its cheap ransom, discouraging users like me. Someone asked on's facebook page, "Are there any other programs like meetup?" while others have begun carping at each other in the wake of the shutdown.

Maybe a competitor is trying to drive down's price tag or sweep it away.

Round up the usual suspects.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

It's been a bad day

please don't take a picture!
It's been a bad day. Please!*

For a story about counteracting the Murphy's Law of restaurant management.

* REM, "Bad Day"